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The world famous Pike Place Fish story A

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The world famous Pike Place Fish story
A Breakthrough for Managers
By John Yokoyama and Jim Bergquist
Fifteen years ago, John Yokoyama, the
owner of Pike Place Fish, a retail fish
market in Seattle’s historic Farmer’s Market,
and his employees committed themselves to
becoming World Famous Pike Place Fish.
With his business at a crisis point, John
contacted Jim Bergquist, founder of
BizFutures Consulting Company, for advice.
Jim invited John to commit to creating an
extraordinary future.
To begin this process, they created three
powerful intentions:
•To show other business leaders what
becomes possible when they are willing to
commit themselves to empowering their
•To demonstrate what happens when you
create a mighty purpose for your
organization that includes prosperity and
success as obvious by-products for every
•To let people see the actual possibility of
intentionally creating the future through a
process that makes a difference in the
quality of life for all people.
As Jim and John worked together, they
asked some significant questions: What’s
beyond successful survival and prosperity
in business? Can the people in a company
intentionally cause their own future? What
happens if you truly empower your
employees? Can a company make a
difference in the quality of life for people?
For our planet?
Their exploration reveals an incredible
adventure into the amazing power of
human creativity as it is manifested in a
retail fish business. It has opened up both
extraordinary opportunities . . . and more
questions. In this essay, John and Jim tell
their story.
John Yokoyama’s big fish story
For me, it all started when I purchased Pike
Place Fish back in 1965. At that time, I was
one of several employees. The business
wasn’t very successful, and the owner really
hated it. After many unsuccessful attempts
to sell the business, my employer offered
me the opportunity to purchase Pike Place
Fish . . . he really just wanted to get rid of it.
At first I said “no.” As a young man of 25, I
was hesitant to buy the business. I didn’t
want the responsibility. However, the
monthly payments on my beautiful, new
1965 Buick Riviera were taking most of my
pay. I finally decided I could do better on an
owner’s salary and went ahead and bought
the company. So, originally, I purchased
Pike Place Fish so I could make my car
For the next 20 years, I worked very hard to
try to make my business successful. During
the first six years, I worked 12-hour days,
six days a week without ever taking a
vacation. While the business wasn’t a huge
success, it did okay. We made a decent
living, but we had to work hard for it. I
wanted something more out of my business
and started to consider expanding in some
Around 1986, I decided to try the wholesale
side of the fish business. Boy, was that a
big mistake! The person I had in charge of
this side of the business put me seriously in
the hole in just nine months! At this point,
my business and I were in trouble. We
were flirting with bankruptcy. I got my team
together at a meeting and told them, “It’s
either sink or swim.” We decided to swim.
Right around the same time, an old friend,
Karen Bergquist, called and suggested that
I meet with her husband, Jim, who
happened to be a consultant. We had a
meeting, and Jim told me he had a unique
approach to consulting. He said he could
coach my team and me and show us how
to create a great future. He told me that I
was thinking too small . . . that I needed a
bigger purpose . . . a bigger game. Then he
invited me to commit myself to a threemonth trial period.
I told him that I was struggling just to stay
in business and that I’d be crazy to hire a
consultant at that time and so the answer
was “no.” He said, “John, this is exactly
the perfect time to hire me, and if you
don’t see results within three months, you
can fire me.” I can’t say exactly why I
changed my mind because it really wasn’t
a logical business decision. Maybe it was
the attraction of creating a really great
future, but I decided to do it. That was the
beginning of our work together, and 15
years later, Jim still consults with me and
leads our bi-weekly staff meetings.
The Pike Place Fish vision
In one of our early Pike Place Fish meetings
with BizFutures, we asked, “Who do we
want to be?” One of the young kids working
for me said, “Hey! Let’s be world famous!” I
thought, “World famous? What a stupid
thing to say!” But the more we talked about
it, the more we became excited about being
world famous. So we printed “World
Famous” on our boxes.
Then, after a while, we asked, “What does
being world famous mean?” And we created
our own definition. For us, it means going
beyond just providing outstanding service to
people. It means really being present with
people and relating to them as human
beings. You know, stepping outside the
usual “we’re-in-business-and-you’re-acustomer” way of relating to people and
intentionally being with them right now, in
the present moment, person to person.
We take all of our attention off ourselves to
be only with them . . . looking for ways to
serve them. We’re out to discover how we
can make their day. We’ve made a
commitment to have our customers leave
with the experience of having been served.
They experience being known and
appreciated whether they buy fish or not.
And it’s not good enough just to want that—
it takes an unrelenting commitment. We’ve
made it our job to make sure that
experience happens for every customer.
One time an elderly couple from New York
wanted to haggle over the price of our fish.
They were upset because the prices
weren’t negotiable. Sammy, one of our
fishmongers, overheard the conversation
and jumped in with “Hey, are you from New
York? I grew up in New York. Where do you
live?” By the time they left, Sammy knew
their names and the kind of work they had
done as well as stories about their children,
their life in New York, their trip to Seattle
and how many people they were having
over for dinner when they got back home.
He also knew what kind of fish they were
serving because he helped them pick it out
and even gave them recipes for cooking it.
Their order was for more than $500. A
week later, Sammy received a letter telling
him all about the great party and thanking
him for making a difference for them.
To us, being “World Famous” is a way of being. It’s about taking care of
people. We’re always on the lookout for how we can make a difference in
people’s lives.
Originally, we wondered, “How are we going to become world famous? We
don’t have any money to advertise!” Jim told us we didn’t have to know how to
become world famous. He told us that when you’re generating a powerful
vision, the future just unfolds. He told us not to believe in it. We just had to be
it. He pointed out that there’s a big difference between a belief about
something and the actual thing itself. Muhammad Ali didn’t say, “I believe I am
the greatest.” He said “I am the greatest.” He was declaring himself. It’s the
difference between the idea of being great and being great out of the
commitment that you are. Jim said, “Your commitment to being world famous
will naturally give you what to do.” So, as individuals, each of us aligned with
the commitment and declared, “We are World Famous Pike Place Fish.”
Jim was right. Once we declared our commitment, things really started
happening. W.A. Murray, who wrote The Scottish Himalayan Expedition in
1951, talks about the importance of commitment. In a famous quote, he says:
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw
back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and
creation), there is an elementary truth the ignorance of which
kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one
definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts
of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have
occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision,
raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and
meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamt
would have come their way.”
I have also gained a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:
“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”
So, we committed ourselves and here’s what happened.
The little fish who could
First, the Goodwill Games came to Seattle.
Photographers from all over the world
showed up at the public market to capture
some scenes of Seattle. They asked people
in the market, “Where are the guys who
throw the fish?” They wanted to take
pictures of us to show the folks back home.
News crews from China, Japan, Zaire,
Russia, Germany—from everywhere—
filmed us.
Then a film crew from Hollywood asked if
we could supply a couple of guys to be in
their movie, “Free Willie.” We could and we
Some time later, one of our employees
caught Spike Lee on MTV. He was looking
for places to film his famous Levi’s
commercials and for people who had an
interesting job. He invited people who
thought they had an interesting job to call or
write to him at MTV. Our guy figured that he
had an interesting job, and besides that, he
was a “World Famous Fishmonger.” He
called MTV. Out of more than 600,000
responses, they picked his. We made a
Levi’s 501 commercial with Spike Lee.
Meanwhile, our manager was being
featured on a local radio talk show every
morning, talking about the Pike Place
Market. When Nordstrom finished building
their flagship store, they painted a billboard
showing five of Seattle’s leaders on the
side of their building. One was the face of a
World Famous Pike Place Fishmonger.
At one point, ESPN showed up to film our
fish-throwing crew as a backdrop for their
sports programming. Then came ABC’s
“Good Morning America, live from Pike
Place Fish,” NBC’s “Frasier,” MTV’s “Real
World,” and CBS’s “Sunday Morning.” We
have been captured on film and talked
about in print by filmmakers and journalists
from all over the world. In 2001, we
appeared in People and Fast Company
We are now a part of the Guinness Book of
World Records by setting a world record for
catching—with one hand—the most fish in
30 seconds. Two employees flew to
Hollywood for the Guinness Records TV
show. They were filmed throwing and
catching 16 fish in 30 seconds with only
one hand.
About four years ago, in one of our staff meetings, my brother Dickey, who is also the
manager of Pike Place Fish, said, “OK guys, it’s time for �Pike Place Fish the movie’ to
show up.” Two weeks later, John Christensen from ChartHouse International Learning
Corporation came to see us and asked if he could make a video of us at work. We said
“sure.” So many people tape us every day that it didn’t seem unusual. We had no idea
that he would produce two award-winning corporate training films, “FISH” and “FISH
STICKS.” These two videos document our company culture at Pike Place Fish as
interpreted by ChartHouse International Learning Corporation. They have been
translated into 12 languages and have become the best-selling corporate training
videos in the world.
Then one of John Christensen’s associates published the best-selling book, FISH!,
which made the bestseller list in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, as
well as the bestseller lists in Japan and Germany.
In a CNN Special Report in March 2001, CNN identified the two most fun places to
work in the United States. The World Famous Pike Place Fish Market was number
It goes on and on . . . I know I’m leaving out many details of our story, but these events
show what has happened as a result of our commitment to our vision.
Except for our website, we’ve never advertised. Without spending one penny, we’ve
received more media exposure than many large companies that spend tons of money
in advertising. All of this is a result of our continuing to come from our vision and be
true to our commitment to make a difference for people—to be “World Famous.”
Our story is really a great testament to the
power of commitment. We create
intentions and commit to them. We never
know how the results are going to show
up. So, while it’s true that we’ve intended
everything that has happened, the events
seemed to come “out of the blue.” Change
really happens as Jim says, “Naturally, just
out of who you’re being.”
People want to copy us . . . to do what
we’re doing. We keep telling them, “Your
success isn’t in doing what we do; it’s in
discovering your own way. Don’t do what
we do. You just have to be. That means
commit yourself to being who you say you
are: act like, think like, look like, feel like,
speak like . . . be it! You will create your
own way by doing what you do. Our secret
to success lies in our commitment to
being who we say we are. Just be it. Your
challenge is to �just be’ who you want to
Beyond the biggest fish
Recently, we realized that we’d
accomplished our vision to become world
famous. Once we committed to our vision,
things seemed to kind of naturally open up
and show us the way and provide
opportunities to fulfill our vision. We kept
stepping into the opportunities, and we did
it—we became world famous!” But then we
had a problem because once you’ve fulfilled
a vision, you have to either sit around, rest
on your laurels, get fat-headed and
arrogant, or you generate a bigger vision.
So we asked ourselves, “Now what?” We
began to look at what else we could be
world famous for. And we created a new
Now our vision is “World Peace, an idea
whose time has come.”
How are we going to accomplish this? We don’t know fully yet. It will unfold as we go. For
example, not long after we declared our commitment to world peace, we were filmed on
CBS’s “Sunday Morning,” and we shared our vision with millions of people. Out of that
program, we received a large number of email messages letting us know that we weren’t
alone in our commitment. One person, a Japanese-American doctor who worked in
Nagasaki and Hiroshima after World War II, sent us a book he wrote and called to tell us
about a course he’s teaching at UCLA, all to promote peace in the world.
When you take a stand and commit to something, it’s amazing how events seem to occur
to forward your commitment . . . even this article that you’re reading is an opportunity to
communicate our vision.
After the new vision has unfolded, after we know how it happened, we’ll tell you the story
just as we are right now. By the way, we’re inviting you and everyone else on the planet
to join us in making this vision happen. This is what’s next for us. But now, I’d like you to
hear the story as Jim Bergquist tells it.
From music to management
I started out to be a musician. I am a
classically trained pianist who earned a
living playing in jazz and rock groups. I’ve
always been deeply interested in human
creativity and how it shows up in people’s
lives, particularly in their work. So, I’ve
been studying and participating in different
creativity and transformation programs for
nearly 30 years.
In 1977, I volunteered for “The Hunger Project,” a United Nations non-governmental
organization whose vision and commitment is to end world hunger. They use a particular
approach to managing people that is focused on the innate creativity of every human
being. They employ a management style based on inspiring commitment rather than the
more conventional motivational models. After a few years, I joined their staff and became
adept with this new management approach by managing and coordinating all Hunger
Project volunteers worldwide. After completing my job with the Hunger Project, I was
invited to work as a management consultant with a firm in Seattle. In 1983, I formed my
own company, BizFutures Consulting Company.
Under new management:
Inspiration and creativity
The management approach behind the Pike Place Fish success story starts with the profound
realization that human beings are, at their very core, powerful and creative beings. Creating
and running a business or an organization is fundamentally a creative endeavor, probably more
akin to conducting an orchestra or coaching a sports team than it is to operating a machine.
From this basic insight, we derive some underlying principles that allow us to reinvent or really
to newly create our companies and ourselves. For managers, these principles generate a
whole new world in which to think and create as well as a way of operating that is at once both
simple and powerful. People can create new realities . . . if they choose to do so.
By the way, this approach is a complete departure from conventional management theory,
which we’ve inherited from Frederick W. Taylor’s mechanical worldview of people in the
workplace. Taylor worked as a machinist and shop foreman at the turn of the last century. He
became a mechanical engineer and is famous for Principles of Scientific Management,
published in 1911, and for his time and motion studies. He’s considered to be the father of
modern management science.
Taylor was a brilliant man who lived in a historical time when the universe and everything in it
was considered to be one big machine, a concept still commonly held. It’s a world metaphor we
have inherited and take for granted. But we’re now in the process of evolving out of this old
paradigm into a new one.
New paradigm, new principles
At BizFutures, we believe that the whole field of management is undergoing a paradigm
shift, changing from a mechanical view of humans as objects who can be “motivated”
with carrots or sticks to seeing people as creative beings.
In this new paradigm, you work with people at the level of being. By “level of being,” I am
implying that when you’re working with people from an intention to empower them, it’s
useful to distinguish different levels on which to work. One level is the physical level, as
when a football coach has his linemen practice running through a set of car tires. Another
is on an intellectual level, working with ideas and concepts. Another is the psychological
level, working with people on their psyche (emotions, beliefs, personal history, selfimage). Working with people at the “level of being” means working with people on who
they are being, the way in which they are constituting their reality.
Working with people on who they’re being requires a great capacity for respect and
appreciation. You have to honor every person. You learn to distinguish the world of
people, objects, and circumstances in a completely new way. Rather than seeing people
as production units, you see them as powerful, creative being capable of great
performances. You work with people by beginning with what inspires them, what moves
them, what they’re naturally committed to. You coach them . . . allow them to coach you.
Everyone is learning—and the results go through the roof, off the charts—literally, you
have to make your charts and graphs much bigger. When you empower people to be
creative at work, the whole company moves to another dimension—it generates a whole
new order of productivity.
Working within this paradigm, we’ve distinguished quite a few underlying principles, and
there are many more that we haven’t yet differentiated. I’ll tell you about four key
The principle of personal power
The first one is “The Principle of Personal
Power.” It says that basically, you’re it, you
are the whole thing. It’s the power of
personal responsibility, meaning that
you’re willing to look at things from the
point of view that you are personally
responsible for your own experience of the
world. It means to operate in your job as if
you are the source of what is happening.
It’s based on the insight that groups of
people don’t create, only individuals
create; of course, they can create with
others, but the point is that only individuals
have the power to choose.
The principle of co-creation
The second principle is “The Principle of
Co-creation.” This means you find yourself
operating in a state of personal power with
other people who are also acting out of
their sense of personal power, and you
find yourself aligned with them on some
common purpose or vision. At this point,
you see the emergence of extraordinary
teams of inspired people, people who are
playing in the zone, i.e., performing at a
whole new level of competence and
productivity and having fun doing it.
The principle of creating a
vision of power and possibility
Of course, the new paradigm assumes
that people have done the work to create a
vision of power and possibility, a third
underlying principle. A vision of power and
possibility generates an environment that
allows people to be creative, even when
things seem to be going wrong. Even the
mistakes you thought you made turn out to
be the right choices. The vision moves
people, touches them deeply, and it
transforms the circumstances. It creates a
new context for the existing set of
circumstances and allows people to see
them in the light of the vision. You don’t
use a mighty vision to make your goals or
achieve your mission. It uses you. It’s as if
you’re riding on a real force of nature.
The principle of allowing
for discontinuous results
This leads to “The Principle of Allowing for
Discontinuous Results.” Outcomes and
events evolve that you haven’t brought
about in the usual “cause and effect” way.
People and circumstances will transform.
You actually have to create the room for
breakthroughs to happen at a rate faster
than you’re used to. Otherwise, you might
tend to allow the temporary sensation of
being dislocated to impede the natural
unfolding of the vision. We also call this
“The Principle of Transformation.”
A fish too big for the ocean
Pike Place Fish is a perfect example of these principles in operation. Their sales volume
has increased by a factor of four, and they’re working in the same 1,200 square feet
they’ve always occupied. Using dollars per square foot, you would be hard-pressed to
find a retail operation anywhere that produces what these people produce. Since John
committed to empowering his employees and including them in the game, his cost of
doing business has dropped from 77 percent to 54 percent—that’s a 43 percent increase
in gross profit, all because each individual in the company has taken personal
responsibility for company profitability. They like to win. They take it personally. They set
new records nearly every month.
And this approach is not limited to retail businesses. We coached some folks from
Scotland who work on an oil platform in the North Sea. They wanted to create a safe and
fun place to work. Creative changes have become apparent in their workplace. For
example, the oil workers are writing their own musical safety messages. Using tapes and
CDs and an occasional live performance from an inspired oil worker, they take turns
producing safety tips. Now, everyone stops working for five minutes and listens to the
song for the day to hear the witty way it ties into the daily safety tip.
They have also improved safety. In an
environment where 30 days with no
accidents is a big deal, they worked 218
days without an accident, which is
completely unheard of in their industry. It’s
so far out of the current paradigm that
other platforms have accused them of
cheating. They also had an unbelievable
increase in productivity. They were able to
go from the usual two weeks to 88 days
with zero mechanical breakdowns, setting
another major record.
This paradigm shift is of enormous significance to the future of
business and organizations around the world. We believe it’s on
the same order of magnitude as globalization. It’s similar to flat
earth beings re-inventing themselves to be round earth beings.
It’s shifting from Newton to Einstein, from classical mechanics to
chaos theory. It’s really a major paradigm shift here. Companies
that have access to what I call the Technology of Transformation,
i.e., those who are incorporating the dimensions of being and
creativity, are truly light-years ahead of those whose concept of
people remains stuck in the old mechanical worldview.
Now, after 15 years, the results are in. Coming from our
intentions for World Famous Pike Place Fish, we’ve now
demonstrated what becomes possible when employees are truly
empowered. We’ve shown what happens when you create a
purpose for your organization that you and your people see as a
mighty one. We’ve shown that people can intentionally create
the future and do it in a way that makes a difference for
But the vision isn’t done with us. Sometimes I think it’s alive. It seems to grow and evolve
continuously. Now the vision seems to be calling us to seek new avenues, new
possibilities. It’s the challenge that every business faces. It’s the challenge that we bring
to you in your business: to set your intentions, to declare your vision, and to commit to
being and creativity as you serve your clients and customers. You can create your own
future through personal commitment to your vision. Take charge and create your destiny,
watch it unfold before your eyes.
Readers may contact John Yokoyama at; to reach
Jim Bergquist, send messages to
Retailing Issues Letter, November 2001, Vol. 13, No. 6, co-published by Andersen and
the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University.
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