Sunday night I got started reading my first book in a while (it is hard to get as much reading done when you’re not riding the train for two hours a day) and it is one that I’ve been looking forward to – Change by Design by Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO).  I had heard great things about the book and even though I am only half way through it as I write this tonight, I can heartily recommend it to anyone who struggles with the ‘old way’ of creating in a corporate environment.  To my way of thinking, design thinking is simply a better term for those of us who are entrepreneurial who need to pitch a new approach to a more traditional company without scaring them off… it also reminded me of a great story that I was told a couple of weeks ago that seems to epidomize the design thinking process – a story I’m going to call ‘The Parable of the Fly Fisherman’.

Let’s start with a brief overview of design thinking for those who are not familiar with the concept (or who, like me, simply hadn’t been able to associate their behaviour and process with any term other than ‘entrepreneurial’).  The design thinking process has seven steps (depending on what source you read it may have less – Tim Brown focuses on three, but all seven of these are there between the lines):

  1. Define – What, When, Who, Why, and How.
  2. Research – Collect information without passing any judgments.
  3. Ideate – Brainstorm without judgment or debate, build on each new idea.
  4. Prototype – Start building rough prototypes early and often and refine throughout.
  5. Choose – Review the objective and select the powerful / game changing ideas.
  6. Implement – Describe, plan, assign ownership, and execute the tasks required to deliver.
  7. Learn – Gather feedback, discuss, and learn from the experience.


As you can imagine, design thinking is far more likely to result in game changing ideas than the old method of incremental improvements.  A company that embraces the design thinking process and philosophy is more likely to be a market creator than a competitor (similar to the concepts in Blue Ocean Strategy) – think Apple for a great example.

One of the key concepts that comes from the design thinking mentality is the drive to fail early and often.  Failing early brings with it very little cost to a project, failing later in the process can be catastrophic.  The habit of prototyping often and early (even rough prototypes made using such high tech objects as Sharpies and duct tape are more than acceptable) allows a design team to quickly test new ideas for viability, gain valuable insights into customer behaviours, and identify the true game changing ideas that will best meet the objectives before the point of no return.

It is this concept of failing early and often that immediately reminded me of a story that I was told a couple of weeks ago by a local business leader, Ty Shattuck (Senior Partner at Trivaris and host of the Innovation Night) that I’m going to call ‘The Parable of the Fly Fisherman’.  Here’s roughly how it goes:

One can always tell a successful fly fisherman from one who will struggle (regardless of experience), and by observing the behaviours of the successful fisherman we can learn a great deal about the approach to commercialization of new ideas (aka – creation of new markets).

Imagine this scenario – you are in a calm river with a large variety of high quality flies with which to fish with, and you know exactly where the big fish are located in the river.

The average angler will select the most likely fly for the type of fish that he is trying to catch based on his experience and cast his line directly toward the ‘big fish’ figuring that by going straight for the heavyweights he is most likely to land a big catch for the day.  The problem is that the wind catches is fly in mid-cast and the fly misses its mark just slightly – angering the fish more than attracting them.  To make matters worse, the fisherman has slightly misjudged the tastes of these fish so when he casts his line the second time – landing the fly directly in the middle of the school of fish he’d like to call dinner – the fish are not interested and choose to disperse rather than take a nibble.  By the time the fisherman gets his line in the water the third time (whether or not he decides to change flies in between casts), all the big fish have gone elsewhere and he has to settle (at best) for some of the small fish on the periphery.

In contrast, when you watch the successful fisherman ply his trade you will see something entirely different.  The successful fisherman ties a fly that he believes is a good match for the fish he’s trying to catch and the other conditions, then intentionally casts for a pocket of smaller fish away from the main school of ‘big guys’.  In his first cast he tests the wind conditions to see how he might have to compensate when it comes time to land the big one, then tests the fly selection by checking for nibbles and perhaps even catching a small fish for his efforts.  With his second cast, after changing his fly to a slightly different version, he casts to another pocket of slightly bigger fish also away from the main pack of big fish – again testing the wind and his fly choice to see if he has made appropriate adjustments.  By the time the successful fisherman casts his third cast he sends it directly into the pack of big fish and immediately lands himself a whopper – by testing his theories early (failing early and often) he is able to score the big fish where the average angler was not.

I have often told the teams I have managed and led that the greatest hitters of all time in the Major Leagues were .300 hitters… in fact a .300 batting average over a reasonable length career is likely to get you into the Hall of Fame, but after hearing ‘The Parable of the Fly Fisherman’ and reading the beginning of Change by Design I think I missed part of the equation.  While a .300 average might get you into the Hall of Fame, the real game changers in baseball did something more than that – they made their hits when it mattered… they were the successful fly fishermen.

You might still be a good baseball player if you don’t get a hit 70% of the times you go to bat, but to be a truly great baseball player, the 30% of the time that you do get a hit should be when that hit will be a game changer – a home run that breaks open a game, or a base hit that drives in the winning run… and some of the times that you don’t get a hit better be sacrifice fly’s that score the winner in the bottom of the 9th.

Fail early and faily often, learn from every experience and delivery, and swing for the fences – find those game changing ideas that will create new markets and make the competition irrelevant.  Design thinking is a powerful tool in the tool belt and I would highly recommend everyone (whether you an Entrepreneur leading your own company or a member of a team in a highly structured and process driven company) to do some reading on the subject.  Innovation is the key to success in the business world of the future, and we need more Canadian companies to lead the way if we want to be a competitive nation in the future.

I’d love to hear your thoughts – feel free to leave your comments in the comment section below.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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