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Swiss Fish: Making the Water Visible

Updated: Nov 18, 2018


Buckminster Fuller observed that our map of the world determined--and reflected--our relationship to it.

A long time ago on a coast far, far away (3000 miles, to be exact), I worked for the World Game Institute. Based on the work of Buckminster Fuller, the World Game was a global economic simulation game played with 25-200 or more players on a Fuller Projection (or dymaxion) map (pictured left) “gameboard” the size of a basketball court. Groups as diverse as dignitaries, congresspeople, college students, and businesspeople played the World Game, all over the planet.


The object of the World Game was for the players, as world leaders, to create solutions to the environmental and geopolitical issues of the day. They could choose whether to look out only for their region, or to form coalitions. They could trade, make deals, steal, and even start wars (by inflating and popping balloons). From the moment the players engaged, the World Game brought a new kind of immediacy and understanding of the planet to everyone across lines of age, gender, continent and culture--everyone, that is, except the Swiss.


When we brought the World Game to Switzerland, we began as we had hundreds of times before, with our standard introduction, assignment of roles, and distribution of game pieces. We started the international music track, and sat back, poised to watch and facilitate the uniquely Swiss unfolding of the World Game. However, unlike every other game, in which players got up and began moving about within minutes or even seconds, our dymaxion planet of Swiss inhabitants sat rooted to their spots. No one moved. A faint hum of Swiss German murmurs filled the room.


People usually moved around. And there were more of them than this picture shows.

We waited. And waited. Two minutes became five became ten. Mystified, we approached the poker-faced Swiss players and asked them how they were doing. In serious tones, one asked,

“What are we meant to do here?”

“You have a description of your region’s challenges. Now go solve them!”

“But What are the rules?”

“Well, that’s the whole point,” we said. “There are no rules. You have before you the true challenges of the planet, only you run it now. You can approach these global problems however you want.”


They stared blankly, then looked at each other, and again at us.


“But how can we play a game with no rules?”


Until that moment, we had taken for granted the basic sense of freedom and choice on which the game relied--a sense not endemic to Swiss culture. Their culture, as we learned through the game’s protracted start, operated according to rules and conformity, to the point of paralysis in the face of open-ended choice.


Sometimes our assumptions rise up unannounced and splash us in the face.


The other facilitators and I regrouped. We realized that we needed to meet our Swiss participants where they were, not where we assumed they would be, even if it meant a different introduction. In the next Swiss workshop, we gave a new preamble. We said,


“Brace yourselves. We’re about to ask you to take a very big leap, and do something waaaaay outside the box of how you normally operate.” We paused. We had their attention.

“We’re going to put full control of the world in your hands. Do not wait for instructions from us--there will be none. You will have to decide for yourselves how to proceed, and create the world you want to live in.”

“We realize this is different from how you have operated before. We ask that you take this leap and try it, even though it may feel unfamiliar at first. Are you ready? Are you willing to step outside the box?”


This time, though with a slower start than most, the game began. Our Swiss-populated planet saw movement, engagement, and buzz. Though it was probably the most mellow and soft-spoken instance I had ever seen, the Swiss played the World Game!


Before we named them, those culturally-specific limitations that kept the Swiss from playing the game were just like water to fish. They were part of the environment, not factors they could choose to alter--because they didn’t even know they existed. Naming them increased the Swiss players’ range of options for action.


But we facilitators were also in our own water. We had assumed that our instructions worked for everyone, since...well, they always had. Our assumption of the universality of the availability of freedom and choice was our water in that situation. It took having the assumption challenged to see that we even had it in the first place.


To one extent or another, we’re all fish in water. We all have blind spots that circumscribe our choices, of which we are unaware. Even what feels like obvious choice to us today may once have been invisible like water, or “just how things are.” Similarly, tomorrow’s choices may be today’s fishwater.


In Evolutionary Workplace trainings, we use many approaches to “naming the water,” or, bringing invisible limitations into awareness. This in turn creates new options for action, connection, and ultimately more effective leadership in both work and the rest of life.


Can you think of some moments in your life when you or someone in your environment became aware of “the water,” or a previously invisible assumption? What happened? What did you learn? What do you think your “water” might be now?

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