Empathy and Fly Fishing

Empathy and Fly Fishing

By Colin Hively, Head of Strategy and Co-Founder

Now, maybe more so than in recent history, we the people are working to create a more perfect union. In this light, I thought it may be worthwhile to examine the process of design thinking, and how this solution-oriented strategic framework might enlighten our discourse surrounding social, environmental, and economic equity today, and more importantly, tomorrow. To pay homage to the experiences that pushed me to affirmatively engage in environmental conservation, I thought I might discuss the design thinking process in the context of one of my favorite out-of-doors pursuits, fly fishing for trout. Design thinking is the process of first deeply focusing on the needs and wants of customers, and then building solutions based on the established problem set, rather than developing a product based on designers’ ideals and hoping the market responds positively. Essentially, an empathy focused and solutions-oriented development ethos. The process, just like life, is a trial, error, and correction sequence, and when you get it right…well there’s nothing like a fish on the other end of the line. The design thinking process is typically broken up into a non-linear and repeatable, five-step process.

  1. Empathize
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Each step represents an integral step in building a product, service, or in this case, fishing fly that is irresistible to the consumer. Let’s dive in.


In my experience, fly fishing rewards the angler’s knowledge base, humility, and natural curiosity. To quote a classic adage, “remember, they call it fishing, not catching”. Empathy in the case of angling is represented in the thinking that goes into the fly selection and presentation. Fly fishing, often, is a process of the angler presenting imitation-insects and larvae to fish in shallow water, thus a knowledge of the diet of local fish, the seasons and rhythm of insect reproduction, and feeding habits are all extremely helpful in catching fish. Or, if you’re like me, you can just count on getting lucky. A phenomenal example of fly-fishing empathy is captured in the saying, “match the hatch”. Anglers will spend hours honing their knowledge of local entomology in an effort to present the fish with the most realistic imitation-insect for that specific body of water, time of year, and target fish diet. This means that in the early season when insect larvae have yet to hatch and spread their wings, you may be fishing with nymph or egg fly-patterns, and in the late summer, you’ll be throwing dries (flies that imitate a flying insect sitting on the surface of the water) all day. Returning to entrepreneurship, it is massively important to understand your user or consumer and the problems they face. iPhone dimensions are based on average hand sizes and flexibility. Amazon obsesses over its user data to build the best customer experience possible and drive more sales. Targeted e-commerce advertising is maybe the best example of presenting the most appetizing metaphorical fly. To solve your user’s problem, you need to see things from their perspective and embrace the reality of their situation. The designer needs to empathize with the user to build a successful product. At the end of the day, it isn’t the angler eating the fly, so it better be appetizing to the fish. 


Once the angler understands the context, they are presenting the fly in and who their consumer is, they need to define their execution strategy. This looks like scouting out the slower flowing water on the river, where the fish will most likely be resting and determining how to best present the fly to the target fish. The fish will surely strike a sufficiently alluring meal, so building the parameters of; what fly, where on the water, what type of cast, how deep, and how long, are critical to drawing closer to hooking a fish. In product or service design, this may look like an outline of initial services/capabilities or the construction of KPI’s (key performance indicators). Once a strategy and metric standard is built, the process can be studied and improved upon.

Ideate & Prototype

Without a doubt, every angler has a love affair with their flies. The big mouse patterns, the microscopic nymphs, the fat wooly buggers, the intricate caddisflies, tying flies is an art that is rarely unappreciated by the angler. After trying their level best to see from a fish’s point of view, define the scope of their operations, a cerebral moment comes before casting the fly line. “What should I throw out there, what will they bite on?” everyone asks themselves at one point. This is the moment where the angler pulls out their trusty fly box and examines their options based on the fishy intelligence they have gathered. Eric Reis, the renowned author of widely acclaimed business books The Lean Startup and Blitzscaling might compare this to the process of developing the minimum viable product. The only way to know if you’ll get a bite is to tie one on and throw it out there!

Test & Repeat the Process

Design thinking is all about meeting the consumer on their terms, so it goes without saying eventually the consumer and the product/service (or in this case, fly) need to meet! Remember, it is fishing not catching. If one thing is guaranteed, no fish will bite, and no user will fall in love with something that is never presented to them. Get out there and see how clever, or more likely, how wrong, you can be. You cannot be afraid to fail, otherwise, there’s no chance you’ll catch anything. The most productive design workshops and fishing trips I’ve had are when everyone sacrifices their ego to the joy of the doing. Casting, conversing, minding, and mending, that’s when the magic happens. The best part is, most of the time you will be shocked by how wrong your original assumptions were, and ultimately, with the right outlook, how much you can learn from empathizing, defining, ideating, prototyping, testing your best guesses.

To summarize, if we seek to understand first, be thoughtful in our approach, be unafraid to fall short, and never too confident in our assumptions to second guess ourselves, we just might be able to build a future that is oriented around solving some of the most pressing problems in our society. I hope that you enjoyed reading this post and that it might inspire you to throw a line out…you never know what you might catch.