How my first fly fishing experience changed my view of business
First, a disclaimer. I swear that this is not an essay written simply as an excuse to write off a fishing vacation. Before I went to the ranch, writing about it was the furthest thing from my mind. The concept was: escape, rejuvenate, and refresh. Period. I cleared my mind, packed my bags, and headed off for a few days of trail riding and fly fishing—neither of which I’d ever done before.
I loved the idea that I’d be doing things that were so unfamiliar that I’d be forced to take off my judgment hat and just plunge into the experience. I relished the sensation of disconnecting from everything that seemed familiar. It seemed as if on some levels, there might be lessons that could apply to other aspects of my life, but that was not the goal. All I wanted to do was go with it, enter virgin territory, and connect with nature.
Since I work in the area of helping people come up with strategic business innovations, I find myself parroting lines to clients like, “It’s ok to feel uncomfortable” and “Since we’re entering unfamiliar territory, you’ll have to design a new rule book for the next initiative.”
But, it had been a long time since I’d put myself in uncharted waters, so being able to do that with a fly fishing rod in hand (for the first time ever), ended up offering me poignant moments of insight, resulting in this list of Rejuvenation: Lessons in Innovation, a list of tips that apply not only to a first time fly fisherman, but to first timers in virtually any business innovation initiative:
1. You don’t know what you don’t know. No matter how much you think you do. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, it’s easy to think you’re smart when you’re actually just lucky. If the fish bite on day one, you can convince yourself that it’s because you’re a natural fisherman. But that’s a dangerous place to be because a. You don’t realize that the guide selected a spot where beginners are almost guaranteed to find lots of fish and b. You can cruise through without ever truly mastering the basic techniques that form the foundation for higher degrees of complexity.
After I caught my first 20 fish, I starting thinking I was destined to be on the cover of Field and Stream. But I turned to the guide and remembered that he had carefully curated every aspect of my “luck”—from the selection of the spot to fish to the flies to the time of day. I realized that I was such a virgin that I didn’t even realize how much more there was to know.
It’s been the same for innovative initiatives that I’ve worked on over the years—I’ve been on teams that have gotten almost cocky in our confidence that we were on the right track because of early wins. But, when the waters got more complicated, we’ve struggled to play catch up with the types of skills we needed to master to sustain our position in the market.
Humility with our virgin status has always been what we needed to dig deeper into our data analysis tools, our communication strategies, our product design, our team dynamics to learn the real lessons from our early wins and avoid thinking we were smart when we were simply experiencing beginner’s luck.
2. Fish come to bait. You can’t force it down their throats. My first instinct was to try to aim the bait at the fish. But hitting a cutthroat trout over the head with a fly won’t get them to bite. I watched the real insects float on the surface of the water for awhile until the fish were attracted to them and I made the mental connection: fishing isn’t forcing. Fishing is observing how fish behave naturally and mirroring those conditions.
I couldn’t help but think about business’s Law of Attraction, where we observe customers, prospects, competitors and conditions and create offerings that go with the natural flow of commerce, adding an element of surprise–like the perfect fly—to stand out from the crowd. Flashy sales techniques don’t work nearly as well as observing the conditions and putting something out there that gently lures our prospects to our brands.
3. Engage guides to accelerate progress: some fishermen and some trail riders. On day three of my fishing excursion, I tuned in to what the guides were doing. I paid attention to how they were reading wind, light, current, temperature, and dozens of other dimensions of fishing that a novice like me could never understand. That’s what made the fundamentals so much easier for me to figure out—there was someone with instincts that were trained in the waters. They had perceptions, vocabulary, equipment, tools, and behaviors that I could never catch up with. They were seeing things that I could not.
I thought about how many times teams I’ve worked on have stubbornly decided to go it alone when we’re tackling tough new issues. Why not call in some people who have been there and done that to guide us? When we’re charged with building a new ecommerce platform, why start in the dark trying to discover first principles when there are so many steps in the process that we could accelerate by consulting or collaborating with experts?
Sometimes I learned fishing tips from the “fly of the day” recommendations scribbled on the whiteboard at the tackle shop. But other times, I figured out some clues about what would be ahead in the stream by listening carefully to the horse trainers during the morning trail ride. What were the wind conditions? How was the temperature shifting?
Learning about the fish by listening to the horse experts brought a new dimension to my appreciation of the overall fishing conditions.
So, could an insurance company trying to enter the ecommerce field learn from other online financial services companies? Of course. But they can also accelerate the learning curve by paying attention to what Zappos is doing in the area of customer service.
Special thanks to Chris, Ray, George, Scott, Greg, Connan, Jim, Karen and the entire Montana team for unforgettable lessons in Rejuvenation Innovation. And, I’d love to hear other stories of fly fishing + business innovation.