Finding Nemo


A Fishy Guide to Strategic Planning


By Dr. Arnie Witchel


Copyright 2003

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†††† Do you ever have difficulty achieving your goals? Take a tip from a little fish! The delightful Disney/Pixar animation hit, Finding Nemo, contains some intriguing insights into strategic planning that can act as a blueprint for success. Nemo, a small clownfish, is taken from his home in the ocean and placed in an aquarium with an assortment of other fish in a dentistís office. His father, Marlin, and Marlinís memory-challenged companion, Dory, set out in search of the little clownfish. They have a goal: Find Nemo. However, they have no plan. Due to this unfortunate oversight (but fortunately for viewers), this sets them adrift on some wonderful and comic misadventures that might have been avoided if they only had a plan to help them accomplish their mission.

†††† In contrast, when Nemo is placed in the aquarium, he meets up with a wise and scarred old fish named Gil. Gil also has a goal: Escape from the aquarium, with Nemo and his friendsí help, and return to the ocean. Gil is very different from Marlin and Dory. Gil not only has a goal, he also has a detailed plan to accomplish that goal. The plan is broken up into several action pieces, or steps. Each member of Gilís team has a specific contribution to the planís success. The plan and its component pieces are measurable in their contribution toward a successful escape. The plan can be revised if certain actions donít succeed.

†††† Without ruining the ending of the movie, letís examine a little further the contrasts in strategic planning between Marlin and Dory, and Gil and Nemo.

†††† Fred Nickols (2000) discusses four major questions to guide us in clarifying our goals and objectives in strategic planning:

        What is it we are trying to achieve (what do we want that we donít have)?

        What is it we are trying to preserve (what do we want that we already possess)?

        What is it we are trying to avoid (what donít we have that we donít want)?

        What is it we want to eliminate (what do we have that we donít want)?

In some cases, these goals and objectives blend. For instance, for Nemo and Gil, they want to achieve freedom from the aquarium. They want to preserve their life while doing it, avoid getting caught or relinquished to another aquarium, while at the same time eliminating captivity. For Marlin and Dory, they want to find Nemo, preserve their own freedom, avoid getting eaten by bigger fish (the sharks), and eliminate Nemoís captivity.

†††† At Witchel & Associates, when working with clients on strategic planning, we find that identifying the answers to these four questions is often not the most difficult part of strategic planning. Whether on a personal or corporate basis, with some thought, most of us can identify what we want, what we want to preserve, what we want to avoid, and what we want to eliminate from our personal or organizational life. Rather, the difficult part is identifying the specific, measurable plan to accomplish those goals. Like Marlin and Dory, we have goals, but we lack measurable, actionable steps to accomplish that plan. It is easier to say, ďI want quicker response time to customer problems,Ē than it is to identify exactly what is causing those problems (for instance, measuring how many minutes it takes to respond to a customerís concern) and then eliminating that cause.

†††† A few weeks ago I was at a large store, trying to get some propane for a weekend BBQ. The cashier told me that there would be someone outside who had the key to the propane cabinet and who would assist me in getting a filled tank. When I went outside, there was no one at the cabinet. I approached at least two different store employees, asking for help. Each stated, ďI donít have the key,Ē and walked off, without further offering assistance. In frustration, I went back to the cashier, who finally located the person with the key, and twenty minutes after the initial transaction, I had the propane. From conversations with the chainís managers, I know that this store has as its goal to provide good customer service (that is what they want) and to eliminate unpleasant customer interactions (what they do have that they donít want). However, all they have is a goal. They donít have an actionable, measurable plan to accomplish it. So, like Dory and Marlin, they wander about in comic misadventures trying to accomplish the goal and hoping for the best.

†††† As much as I would like to be critical of this store, they are not unusual. Without some kind of plan, and the steps to accomplish that plan, we are dreaming about a better world (for ourselves or our customers) without the performance standards or action plan to accomplish the goal. It is much easier to say, ďWe want to provide better customer service,Ē than it is to say, ďAnd we will accomplish that by staying with each individual customer until their problem is solved, with no more than ten minutes in resolution time.Ē Like Marlin and Dory, it is much easier to want to find Nemo than it is to figure out a plan to accomplish that goal and avoid misadventures.

†††† Sometimes it is easier to define the plan if we concentrate on what is keeping us from achieving that goal. Kurt Lewin, in his work on force field analysis, gave us a good approach to this. He notes that for any goal there are forces that drive us to achieve that goal. For instance, driving forces to achieve a goal of good customer service might be competitive pressures, the need for repeat customers, better customer experience, to name a few. But for every driving force, there are resisting forces that keep us from achieving good customer interaction (not enough keys to the propane cabinet, not enough people in the front end of the store at any given time, no firm guidelines on customer interaction). Note that in this case, all the resisting forces are measurable (how many keys are there, how many repeat customers do we get, how many people are in the front of the store). In order to achieve our goal, we have to identify the resisting forces, and make a firm plan on how to remove the resisting forces in order to achieve our goal.

†††† To guide our future efforts, and to avoid missteps (as well as to improve accountability and measurement), we need to go further than identifying what it is we want, the things we want to avoid, those we would like to preserve and eliminate. We also need to identify the plan and measurements we will take to see if the plan is working. The process should look like this:


Goal ††††††††††††Identify Resisting Forces to Goal†††††††††† Action Steps††††††††† Measure†††††††††† Correct

†††† If we at least begin to take the steps beyond goal identification in strategic planning, and move toward specific actions and standards in measuring goal attainment, we will find that our chances for success only improve. So the next time you have set goals, think fishy like Nemo in order to achieve them!


Nichols, F. (2000). A tool for clarifying goals and objectives. Retrieved May 3, 2003 from



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