Here in Minnesota where I live, fishing qualifies as an organized religion in almost every respect except tax status. It has its traditions, rituals and orthodoxies, and its many faithful followers. It even has denominations, one for Walleye fishers, another for Northern Pike, for Bass, a smaller sect for fly fishing and so forth. To fail to participate regularly is to risk being seen as a heretic. So permit me to draw an analogy between fishing and innovation, one that I think provides some important insights.

We’ve all heard the old saw about giving someone a fish versus teaching them to fish. But there’s an added level of expertise that goes beyond teaching someone to fish—and it’s the same kind of expertise that innovation requires.

The Challenge

The Norman Rockwell image of a barefoot boy with a bamboo pole, a bobber, a hook and a worm hasn’t been real for a long time. It’s been replaced by high tech rods and reels, sonar fish finders and engines with enough horsepower to outrace a ski boat. It can be intimidating for the beginner partly because there’s so much to learn, from what kind of tackle to buy and bait to use, to what species are in or out of season. But what hasn’t changed is that the most crucial information a fisher can have is something you can never know for sure: where the fish are and what will make them bite. Knowing how to find those answers is the highest form of the art…and so it is with innovation.

Let me desribe three levels of expertise:

Level One

This is giving someone a fish, or picking up a few filets at the store—perhaps on the way home on a day when the fish weren’t biting.  It requires no special competence, other than the ability to obtain the fruits of someone else’s efforts. In a business context, it’s the path that requires the least effort and produces the least innovation.

Level Two

This is teaching someone to fish. It’s explaining what kind of tackle to use and how to use it, things like how to bait a hook and cast a line. It may include pointing out a few favorite spots where fish have been found and what bait has worked before. The instructor might be a buddy or guide who already knows the latest technology, the best places to find the fish and the best strategies to use to catch them.

For a business, this is all the expertise and experience that keep things going. It’s knowing your industry and customer and market. Education and training in most fields is aimed at building this kind expertise. It’s what makes most of us employable. We’ve learned to do a job from others who have done it before us.

Many organizations put innovation into this second category, as though it’s yet another competency or expertise that one learns and replicates. While this kind of expertise can be powerful, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll catch any fish, and it still doesn’t take you beyond what someone already knows how to do. So while Level Two thinking can at times support innovation, it’s not enough by itself.

Level Three

This is the level of the fishing tournament champion, someone who not only knows how to fish, but knows how to find the fish. It’s one thing to return to where you’ve caught fish in the past. It’s another thing to know how to systematically explore an unfamiliar lake in order to find the best fishing spots and the biggest fish. Level Three is about knowing how to figure out what you need to know. It’s in effect learning how to learn how to fish.

This Level Three kind of expertise is what defines innovation. It requires developing and pursuing hunches about where the fish or the most promising ideas may be. It demands systematic trial and error to explore those hunches—a lot of lines in the water and moving around from one potential spot to another, testing, learning and looking for clues and insights. It’s developing techniques that enable you to navigate your way through the uncertainty that’s part of both fishing and innovation, to find the answers that no one can give you.

Innovation is inherently a Level Three challenge and when we’re facing a Level Three challenge, Level Two thinking is not only inadequate; it can be counterproductive. With Level Two thinking, we tend to believe that we just need to find someone who can give us the answers. So we ask experts or mentors what they’ve done in similar situations. Their answer is likely to be more instruction on how to bait a hook. Or worse, they’ll launch into an interrogation designed to uncover what step we must have missed in their prescribed solution.

What we need to know to innovate is at a higher level: How did they figure out the best way to bait a hook in the first place? The response will sometimes be that someone taught them, a very Level Two answer. Or, they’ll tell you what they learned from their own investigation, another Level Two response. But occasionally, if you ask probing questions and they have enough self-awareness, they will reveal the process they went through. They’ll explain the systematic trial and error, the experiments, observations and reflections, the hunches they pursued and insights they gained—even the false starts and mistakes along the way. A good Level Three explanation doesn’t just cover what they learned and did; it covers how they thought about and worked through the challenge.

Even with some of the most advanced innovation techniques—as useful as they can be—you’re still operating at Level Two if you treat them simply as tools to be applied, without shifting your thinking to a higher level. Level Three thinking is taking all those things we already know and treating them as options to consider and explore, not instructions to follow. It’s asking for expert input to add to those options, not find the only correct solution. It’s exploring ways to find new answers, not just recalling what may have worked before.

Level Three thinking is about being skilled at discovery and it’s what distinguishes the most accomplished fishers and innovators.

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