This blog post is all about three particular kinds of issues Airbnb focused on when declaring their way to fix problems in their company culture; why its important to name such issues explicitly; what happens if you ignore them & why it's so important not to do so.

Disclaimer: the concept presented in this article is not mine, hereby I take no credit neither for the naming nor the idea itself. The terms come from Airbnb's CPO Joe Gebbia & I've read about them in "The Airbnb Story". I just think they are cool (& useful) enough to get you all familiar with them :)

Naming is a game-changer. Once we name stuff, we give it the IDENTITY. Problems, once named, can be classified/compared/assessed, have boundaries (aka "are framed") - what makes all the discussions (& making decisions) so much easier.

No wonder that naming things brings so many "a-ha" moments - especially when someone labels a particular problem/issue/situation in a better way you ever did & it's a problem so well familiar it almost feels like a part of your family ;P

That's why I've literally cheered when during my read about Airbnb's company culture I've encountered three terms coined by Joe Gebbia, the ones he has found fundamental (I totally agree, even not knowing Airbnb myself) to fix communication within his company: Elephants, Dead Fish & Vomit.


... is something that is always in the room, everyone is aware of its presence, but no-one ever mentions or addresses it. This stuff can be shameful, can be inconvenient (to publicly realise its existence) or is just obvious to everyone EXCEPT the top management (and no-one wants to be a messenger getting shot ...).

Elephants are destructive (to the culture) for several reasons:

  • they are anti-thesis of transparency & openness (present, yet omitted, like they don't exist)
  • they are contradictory to Getting Shit Done concept -> if there's a problem, tackle it, break it down or openly state that it doesn't lie within the priorities (for a particular reason or lack of such one)
  • they introduce the aura of helplessness, kill the clarity & make you doubt there's any vision (among people, and leadership in particular)

Elephants have to die.

Dead Fish

... stink & rot. It's something that happened in the past - maybe even as long as few years ago - and people still can't get over it. For one of many reasons:

  • maybe there was an unfair treatment that lacked clarification/justification
  • maybe there was a mistake no-one admits for (or takes responsibility for) - non-transparent, misunderstood action that has undermined trust in the organisation so much that it's still a swollen wound

Dead Fish have to be cleared out in public, in an open & honest way:

  1. to set up expectations for future (so people feel confident about what to expect)
  2. to avoid individual judgements & hypotheses regarding values behind the company (/group)
  3. to make sure all people are focused on present & future, instead of something that digging into something that has already happened and which we can't really change anymore

Dead Fish have to disappear.


... is an act of venting out all the accumulated thoughts (this does not correspond 1:1 to emotions ...) to an actively listening interlocutor(s). Things that you'd normally not tell, things you were actually restraining from telling - because:

  • you didn't want to overstep yourself
  • you didn't want to criticise prematurely
  • etc.

Vomit (or rather: having conditions to conduct it: audience, venue, time-slot) is crucial to ...

  1. make everyone sure that her/his opinion will ALWAYS be listened to
  2. build culture founded on open statements, not on rumours repeated behind someone's back
  3. avoid having people leaving just because they don't feel like they belong - e.g. because they can't identify them as members of the team, co-authors of the solution

Vomit has to happen (or at least has to be given a no-friction opportunity to happen) before it accumulates too much.

My call for action is very simple here:

Read that through again, so you memorise the terms better. And next time you'll encounter any of these situations (deliberately ignored inconvenient truth, long-standing open issue that was not properly concluded in a transparent way, someone not being able - or too reluctant - to come up with her/his standpoint) REACT!

  1. name the issue as such
  2. don't let it be
  3. clear it out, so it doesn't pop out even worse in two months

Building healthy work culture (& engineering culture in particular) is based on having the everyday discipline to handle such situations - EXACTLY that kinds of situations.

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