Preventing the pufferfish effect: Tips for managing change

Allison Matlack · 2024-01-28

Preventing the pufferfish effect: Tips for managing change

Picture this: It’s first thing Monday morning, and you’re settling into your chair, waking up your laptop so you can log in to work and start figuring out what the new week will bring. You yawn and then take another sip of coffee while everything loads.

And then you see it.

A gigantic Slack redesign with a complete overhaul of the UI. A shiny new corporate intranet with a refreshed information architecture, where everything you regularly reference is in a new and as-of-yet unknown location. An announcement that someone has decided to decommission an integral part of your team’s daily workflow, which will probably break the deploy pipeline. A totally new third-party calendaring or conferencing or communications system that doesn’t integrate with anything in your current stack.

Enter the pufferfish

The adrenaline rush and rise in cortisol we feel when caught off-guard by these kinds of disruptive changes is similar to the fight-or-flight response, but I like to call it the “pufferfish effect”: We get so full of anger, frustration, indignation – irritated our colleagues (seemingly) didn’t bother to consult us, or consider our use cases, or, at minimum, even provide a warning before ripping things out from under us – that we puff up like blowfish, making it impossible to have any kind of rational conversation or to find a way forward until we can calm back down and de-puff.

So, as my fellow communications and change management practitioners are well aware, if you want your message to be heard or your change to land successfully, it’s best to find ways to prevent everyone from puffing in the first place.

The Pufferfish Prevention Program

In 2018, I took a position leading the internal communications team for my company’s Products and Technologies division (comprising engineering, product, support, docs, et al), and it wasn’t long until I was spending a large chunk of my time consulting with members of other organizations on how to communicate with ours, all thanks to the pufferfish effect and how we all made like blowfish any time any kind of change was announced.

What I quickly realized – and I’ll let you decide if this is a bug or feature, because this is true at so many companies – is that the teams in charge of the systems and tools people use every day are usually siloed off from the people using those systems and tools. For example, an IT department might look at line items on a spreadsheet and decide to decommission a particular system or app based on the low percentage of users relative to cost to maintain, not realizing it is integrated into some essential workflow or process over in Engineering. It’s sometimes hard to know what the impact of a small change will be downstream, or if it will truly require weeks of stakeholder and risk analysis, feedback gathering, etc.

So, to help, my team and I decided we’d start the (unofficial) Pufferfish Prevention Program – not only to establish better lines of cross-organizational communication and ways to surface changes for feedback before implementation, thus reducing the impact of the pufferfish effect, but also to give us a more humorous way to hold ourselves and others accountable for behaving professionally when we feel like we’re about to puff up. To this day, if I vent any overblown frustration or anger to certain friends, they will respond with a GIF of a pufferfish, which, as a reminder that things are not that deep, usually makes me laugh and calm down.

My manager at the time, Kimberly Craven, surprised us with packs of stickers featuring our very own mascot, a little pufferfish in our brand colors with “Products and Technologies Change Agent” written on its belly (shown here without the belly branding). Thanks to the pervasive laptop-sticker culture in tech, the pufferfish stickers became badges of pride across the company and served as constant reminders both to consider others when making changes, and to have compassion for colleagues making the changes (because it’s not easy, y’all).

The pufferfish effect on the OODA loop

In true open source fashion, one of my colleagues, Gunnar Hellekson, forked and expanded the concept to better articulate the damage the pufferfish effect can have on an organization, as it disrupts the OODA loop.

The OODA loop is a decision-making model, where OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, act. The process begins with observing what’s going on around us, then orienting ourselves, then deciding what action to take, and then acting, before running back through the loop to figure out what’s changed and what needs to happen next. The model was developed by a military strategist in the context of combat operations, but it turns out that whatever the context, the individual (or team, or organization, or company) who can run through the OODA loop more quickly than their opponent will always prevail.

Maneuverability and speed are as important to success in business as they are in combat, and the reason the individual (or team, or organization, or company) who can run through the OODA loop more quickly will have the advantage is because they have more opportunities to make more decisions, and more opportunities to change their minds. Optionality is the value.

So what happens when anxiety, fear, anger, frustration, and everything wrapped up in the pufferfish effect take hold? Puffing up (with its associated cortisol) is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting for the individual personally, and it completely destroys the OODA loop. Your vision narrows, so you can’t see your surroundings well, and you can’t orient yourself; you become completely closed off, and all you can do is keep repeating the same action.

DALL-E's take on a pufferfish interrupting the OODA loop

Image: DALL-E's take on a pufferfish interrupting the OODA loop, which came out perfectly since OODA is out of order and misspelled

Just breathe

The pufferfish effect is not only unpleasant for everyone involved, but also detrimental to the agility and adaptability of any organization. It slows down the OODA loop, reduces optionality, and creates unnecessary conflict and resistance. That’s why it’s important to find ways to prevent it, or at least mitigate it, whenever possible.

Here are some practical tips for how you can help prevent the pufferfish effect in your own workplace:

  • Communicate early and often. If you are planning or implementing a change that will affect others, make sure you inform them as soon as possible, explain the rationale and benefits, and solicit feedback and input. Don’t surprise people with changes that will disrupt their workflows or routines without giving them a chance to prepare and adjust.
  • Listen and empathize. If you are on the receiving end of a change that you don’t like or understand, try to resist the urge to puff up and lash out. Instead, listen to what the change-makers have to say, ask questions, and try to see things from their perspective. Acknowledge the challenges and frustrations, but also look for the opportunities and advantages. Remember that change is hard for everyone, and that everyone is trying to do their best.
  • Collaborate and co-create. If you are part of a cross-functional or cross-organizational team, make sure you have regular and open communication channels, and that you involve each other in the decision-making process. Seek to understand the needs, goals, and constraints of each stakeholder, and work together to find solutions that work for everyone. Don’t make assumptions or judgments about what others do or don’t need, want, or know.
  • Learn and iterate. If you are implementing or experiencing a change, don’t expect it to be perfect or final. Be open to feedback, experimentation, and adaptation. Learn from what works and what doesn’t, and be willing to adjust and improve as you go. Celebrate the successes and learn from the failures. Don’t be afraid to change your mind or course-correct if needed.

And remember, when in doubt, just breathe.