When it comes to categorizing employees, you can use all kinds of
organizational principles such as sorting by department, by seniority, by
team sizes, by tenure, and more. But many firms overlook another important
categorization: muddy fish or clean water fish.
Every employee can be categorized into one of these two categories. One
isn’t objectively better than the other. In fact, both types are great when
they’re in the right job. That’s why it’s so important to understand how and
when these two different personalities meet the needs of your business in
every stage of growth.
What are Muddy Water Fish?
Employees who do well with ambiguity are Muddy Water Fish. They do best
when the waters around them are murky. These staff members embrace
uncertainty, solve problems as they go, and move forward comfortably even
if they can’t see the way.
Muddy Water Fish require a particular environment in which to thrive. They
don’t like a lot of rules or dress codes. They can take an idea and run with it,
so they don’t need much structure. In fact, regulations and processes often
slow them down, and they know it.
Muddy Water Fish are able to drive rapid growth in the early stages of a
company’s development. They work independently, and they don’t need
much infrastructure to excel. But as your business grows, their working style
can become disruptive. A firm full of Muddy Water Fish might be innovative,
but it will have problems scaling up.
Muddy Water Fish will be important in Stage 1 (Strategy), Stage 2
(Specialty), and Stage 3 (Synergy) of Business Success. But they can
present a challenge in later stages.
What is a Clean Water Fish?
Many employees fall into the category of Clean Water Fish. These folks want
to be able to see what’s next. These process-driven individuals work best within an established framework. They need order and goals, and don’t do
well with ambiguity.
Clean Water Fish work best in mature companies with well-developed
processes. They want direction and appreciate evaluations. This type of
worker wants contingencies for every eventuality. And importantly, they
work well in large groups.
While Clean Water Fish often show up early in process-driven departments
such as accounting, they are rarely present in large numbers in a firm’s early
days. In the first stages of a business’s growth, the Clean Water Fish’s need
for organization stresses them out. They swim towards order, stability, and
continuity. They shy away from risk.
Clean Water Fish might be especially helpful in Stage 4 (Systems), Stage 5
(Sustainability), and Stage 6 (Scalability) of Business Success. But they
may slow down progress in earlier stages.
Are There Any Downsides to Muddy or Clean Water Fish?
Muddy Water Fish may create a cloud of muck to protect themselves from
scrutiny and potential dangers. Confusion or obscurity can be a form of job
security for this type of employee, so they won’t always play nice with
others. It’s also common for Muddy Water Fish to resist attempts to create
processes, regimens, and order.
Clean Water Fish come with their own set of challenges. They feel vulnerable
and insecure without processes in place. They aren’t always good at taking
leaps of faith. They get upset if others “break the rules” or if exceptions are
made to established procedures. Their need for order can trigger chronic
procrastination and become a barrier to progress.
Business Owners Start as Muddy Water Fish, and Transform into
Clean Water Fish
While it’s easy enough to categorize employees, this analogy also applies to
business owners. In the early stages, most entrepreneurs are Muddy Water
Fish. Founders must be flexible to adapt quickly to a variety of market
situations. Comfort with uncertainty is a requirement.
In a firm’s early days, the focus is on sales and growth, not checks and
balances. As a result, entrepreneurs usually surround themselves with other
Muddy Water Fish who are also comfortable with a startup environment.
However, to transition a firm to the next level, the founder must transform
into a Clean Water Fish. Eventually, owners must say goodbye to the
startup’s short-term vision and reliance on intuition. Scaling and stability
require systems, checks, and balances. It’s a common issue in company
growth. If the owner doesn’t transition from the invention mindset to a
process-driven approach, their own support teams will eventually view them
as a liability.
There is a Place for Both Types in Most Organizations
Once a business has a steady revenue stream, it’s time to put systems and
processes in place, which means it’s time to clean up the water. As the
business morphs from a scrappy startup into a going concern, it’s time to
staff the growing enterprise with Clean Water Fish who see the vision,
embrace the processes, understand cooperation, and want to create
But don’t get rid of all your Muddy Water people. While most won’t do well in
the new world of systems and processes, some still have a place in the more
fluid environments that continue to exist in areas such as sales and
Every well-established, successful firm has areas that demand order and a
few pockets of ambiguity that require more flexible employees. By
understanding the fundamental differences in working styles, you can stock
your firm with the mix of Muddy and Clean Water Fish that help you meet