‘Only dead fish go with the flow’ is the sort of phrase you might see on a motivational poster or rendered in a snazzy font on Pinterest. Certainly I’ve seen it flashed up on the final slide of a presentation about innovation and change garnering a lot of chin-stroking and an assenting hum from the audience. Clever as it seems it is of course neither helpful nor true. I’ll wager that didn’t stop it being slipped into their next presentation by half the audience (no doubt our guru had done the same, ‘borrowing with honour’ from some guru’s guru). How can we steel ourselves to see through the seemingly clever but unhelpful and untrue? ‘Think harder’ might be the glib response…so let’s think harder about fish and flow.

Thinking very hard about fish and flow is the one of the defining characteristics of the team from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology who aim to break the human-powered water speed record, led by their professor of biomechanics, Adrian Thomas. Until I’d heard about their project I’d assumed that some form of technology based on a propeller would be best for getting us through the water fast. Not because I’d thought about it too deeply but just by observing how many people had used and continue to use this technique and reckoning that they knew what they were doing. Until I’d looked it up I’d further assumed that this technology dated back to Archimedes and his screws used to lift water onto land for irrigation. It turns out he’s predated by a still more ancient Greek, Archytas, by 180 years and perhaps by someone even more ancient in China. So an idea that’s stood the test of time, war, sport and the best minds in human engineering, physics and mathematics – that must be the best answer, mustn’t it?

Perhaps not, because in their attempt to break the record, Dr Thomas’s team want to utilise an underwater fin which is flapped up and down – in the same way that dolphins or whales swim (OK, these are mammals not fish but bear with this). He explains that by finely tuning the fin into an aerofoil shape it is most efficient when it matches the flow of water and more efficient than a  propeller (which works by disrupting the flow of water). This is achieved by utilising the whole surface area of the fin’s blade to produce thrust whereas a propeller’s tips and hub add little or nothing to this effort.

There are of course other ways of thinking differently that don’t necessarily feel like thinking hard. Like a lot of people who saw Luc Besson’s film The Big Blue at an impressionable age, I’ve long harboured an awed fascination with the sport of Freediving; an ongoing quest to see how far a  human can descend into water on a single breath. The film’s great achievement, beyond but in part because of its Cinema du look style and beauty, is to capture the spiritual aspects and mystic mindset of a sport that explores the bounds of human capacity – not against, but in nature. One would imagine that a good many Freediving practitioners think a lot about fish and flow.

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The most obvious change I’ve noticed since first seeing The Big Blue is that where all divers used to wear a fairly standard but enormously long pair of flippers to propel themselves through the water, many now use one big underwater fin, shaped in the familiar curve of…a whale or dolphin.  Now it might be my romanticised view but I imagine that the Freedivers skipped the maths and biomechanics and simply thought ‘what’s good for dolphins might be good for me’. Whatever. The interesting thing is that two groups working from a different perspective brought thinking to a field that challenges the perfectly sound, sensible, tried, tested, useful, effective, efficient, existing orthodoxy. We’ve been copying nature in engineering for while now, famously with velcro and cats- eyes and latterly building fantastical robots that are as spooky as they are impressive. However, as a lens to help us see through the unhelpful and untrue ‘Learn from nature’ isn’t any more focused than ‘Only dead fish…etc.’.

Of more specific help is a more general trend.

The specific help that Dr Thomas got was from his colleague Graham Taylor who noted that the oscillation patterns caused by the fins, wings and tails of flapping animals such as birds, bats, insects, whales and fish (!) are similar to one another. They believe that this is an example of:

‘convergent evolution’, a process whereby organisms not closely related to one another evolve similar traits independently.’

By thinking really hard about general ‘flapping’, the team estimate that they can build a propulsion system for their specific task up to 20% more efficient over a broad range of speed than one based on a propeller.

And so here is a concept that might help us spot not just the unhelpful and untrue but to see afresh  – and perhaps beyond – the perfectly sound, sensible, tried, tested, useful, effective, efficient, existing orthodoxy. By adopting the metaphor of convergent evolution one might be inspired to look outside one’s department, organisation or industry to seek out and learn from people addressing a fundamentally similar problem in an entirely different way. For Dr Thomas and his team this meant re-framing their problem: from ‘how can humans best propel craft through water?’ to ‘why does evolution favour flapping as a propulsive means?’ By similarly re-framing a problem or situation as widely as possible, you might discover new fields of relevant enquiry where the breakthrough to crack your issue or a better alternative to your existing approach has already been discovered. Going with the flow can make perfect sense, being aware that there’s more than one flow is the first step to making that a conscious choice.

E-mail your team with a competition. Who can come up with the most general description of what you do? The person who devises the least specific description wins a prize; they get a fund to buy the team a takeaway lunch.

At lunch ask everyone if they can tell a story about a hobby or interest outside of work which is in some way, however tenuous, relevant to the winning, non-specific description of what you as a team do.

What do you learn?