Innovation and a Fishing Metaphor

by Jeffrey Phillips

Innovation and a Fishing MetaphorI had the opportunity to go fishing over the weekend, at a pond on my grandfather’s farm. I love to fish, and want to pass down the pleasures of fishing to my kids. Whether it’s fishing for salmon in Alaska, for trout in the mountains of Virginia or simply tossing a worm into a pond, there’s something magical about fishing. And, since I am neck deep into innovation, I am constantly thinking about what the activity I have underway has to do with innovation. Fishing, a sport or livelihood almost as old as time, has a lot of things to tell us about innovation.

First, a good fisherman scouts the scene. That may be a lake, a river, a pond or a likely spot in the ocean. It is a waste of time to put good bait into a spot where there are no fish, unless your idea of fishing is absolutely no distractions and no catching either. Scouting the scene helps you determine where the fish may be, their likely habitats and their habits.

Second, once you’ve scouted the scene you need to determine if the fish are biting, and if so, what they are biting. Different fish feed at different times of the day, and on different baits. Trout fishermen are notorious for matching the hatch. That means they are trying to decide what bugs are hatching currently and how they can present lures or flies that look like the bugs that are hatching in the water. Timing is everything – even if the fish are in the water, fishing when they are more likely to be dormant (heat of the day) is a waste of time, as is fishing with bait that doesn’t align to their diets or interests.

Third, if you’ve got the right spot and the right bait at the right time, then placement is everything. You don’t want to spook the fish, and you want to place the bait in the right place without disrupting the normal activities. A loud splash or a poor cast disrupts the habitat and spooks the fish. Good placement and presentation is paramount.

Fourth, you’ve got to know when you are getting a bite, and when that bite is a commitment and not simply a test. Many wily fish will nibble your bait but are almost impossible to hook, because they take small bites rather than swallow the bait entirely. Only when a fish commits to the bait do you stand a good chance of reeling him in.

Fifth, and most difficult for my kids: fishing requires patience and experimentation. Perhaps the bait isn’t right. Try a new bait. Perhaps the fish are lying deeper in the water (where it is cooler) on a hot day. Lower your bait. Try, try, try and then move to a new spot. Experiment, use what you know, learn and incorporate. While we’d all love to see the fish bite immediately, good fishermen know that it can take time and patience.

So, if all of these things are true about fishing, what do they have to say about innovation?

First, scouting is important. Is there a viable market opportunity? If so, where? How important is that need or opportunity, and when will it arise? Is the customer or market aware of a need? Knowing your customer or prospective customer and understanding his or her need is important. Scouting (trend spotting) and scenario planning helps define the best opportunities.

Second, what do the market, environment, technology conditions look like? A great idea ahead of its time is simply another failure in the making. You need to identify the right opportunity, in the right timeframe, with the right solution in order to be successful. You also need to generate lots of ideas within your scope or context, just as a fisherman has many different baits at his disposal.

Third, match your offering to the spoken or unspoken needs and demonstrate its benefits in a way that doesn’t cause disruption to the customer. Yes, you may cause significant disruption in the market, but the customer must be able to find and adopt your solution easily. No matter how great your solution is, inertia says that customers will stick with a simple but inadequate solution rather than a more elegant solution that requires them to change or learn something new. The best ideas are easily adopted, require little learning and seem obvious in hindsight. The worst ideas are difficult to adopt, require a lot of change or learning and disrupt the user to gain a benefit.

Fourth, everyone is interested in new stuff, but not everyone is committed and will acquire new stuff. You have to distinguish between interest (nibbles) which you will receive a lot of, and commitment (acquisition) which is valuable and a step beyond interest. Few people will tell you your idea stinks, but don’t use compliments to suggest the idea is valuable. Value is indicated when they acquire your new product or service, not when they praise it.

Fifth, just because an idea doesn’t pan out immediately, be patient. Conduct lots of prototypes and experiments. If you are on to some key need but can’t break through, revisit your assumptions and change your hypothesis. In other words, experiment within the scope of the product or solution or market set. Know “when to fish and when to cut bait”. Sorry, couldn’t resist. Don’t assume your idea will take off dramatically, immediately. The “hockey stick” curve of growth we all want to achieve is exceptionally rare, except on PowerPoint slides pitching the idea.

Finally, both innovating and fishing are proactive activities that engage the mind and the body. Good fishermen are good thinkers, always planning, moving, experimenting. They are engaged and passionate about their sport. Good innovators display the same characteristics, and do it without the worms. Who knew fishing and innovation had so many commonalities?

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Jeffrey PhillipsJeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and

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