What Does the Creative Style of a Fly Fisherman Have to do with Paradigm Shifts?

– W. D. Diana

Normally, I tie my fishing flies at my bench in the Den. It just happened on one particular day in December some years ago that I was tying at the kitchen table while keeping my wife, Rosalie, company as she was starting to prepare a batch of Christmas cookies. I could taste the aroma of baking gingerbread, and feel the warmth of the oven. Christmas would soon be here, and then it would only be a short hop to opening day of the trout season. As I was putting the finishing touches on a large black stone fly nymph imitation that I had just tied, our neighbour, Joyce, arrived to chat with my wife. She stopped to look at what I was doing and said, “You fly-tiers are so creative. That fly looks so real that it could almost get up and walk away”. I thanked her for the compliment. I didn’t pay much more attention to Joyce’s comment as I gathered up my equipment, and moved to the Den to continue fly-tying for my next fishing trip to Montana, a long seven months away.

The Challenge

The next day at work, at a divisional technical meeting, our department manager spoke to us about an unprecedented need for more “creativity and innovation” in our organization. He stated that: “We as a company have to be even more creative in order to survive in this competitive world. And, it is up to us to provide that creativity”. Well, as a supervisor who would ultimately be responsible for this highly desired creativity, with a background in chemical engineering, I thought that we already were very creative. And, if someone wanted more creativity, then there must be a frame of reference, or a measurement that we could at least get a basis for how well we were currently performing. Not for the first time, I asked my office to undertake a quick literature search on creativity. But, I soon found out that even after more extensive searches, no one really knew for sure what creativity was, and especially how to measure it. This was also true for the word “innovation” which had an equally confusion aura about it: the term “creativity and innovation” I have learnt to avoid, thanks to Kirton’s work. But all this talk presented a strong dilemma. Maybe our friend Joyce knew the answer – perhaps fly tiers were the creative ones; thus, all we had to do as a company was to hire engineers and scientists who tie fishing flies.

Well, that of course would be a ridiculous thing even to consider or suggest. So I continued my search for the Holy Grail. I then started personally looking in the literature, and I made an interesting discovery, at least for me: there was no generally agreed upon good measure of creativity; but given the uncertainty over the definition, should I have been surprised?

Yet, there was still this massive need for something that everyone wanted, that nobody agreed how to define, and that no one really knew how to get. Further, everybody agreed that it was very important to have. So over the years I continued my search for some answers. I even took training courses on “innovation” and “creativity”. I learned how to facilitate brainstorming sessions, which is of course a creativity generating technique as distinct from a measure of creative capacity or creative style. Soon I became known as someone to use if one wanted to run a decent idea generating problem solving session. In spite of all that training, I still wasn’t sure what creativity really was, other than it is often used to solve problems.

Enter Adaptive/Innovative Theory

Years later I came across a book by Kirton (1994), who had developed a measure that didn’t offer to quantify one’s capacity for creativity; but, it appeared, could measure creative style, or the way people use their creativity to solve problems. I inquired further, and soon I was deeply involved in this new technology. It was here that I finally learnt to distinguish between capacity, technique and style. For me, this clarity began to clear the fog around the way we normally think of creativity and, for example, that innovation is after all a sub-set of creative style.

After successfully passing some rigid requirements I became a certified user and instructor in this new technology. I found it a very fascinating subject, as it accurately described some behaviour patterns that I noticed in my brainstorming sessions. I knew that some people were using different approaches and behaviours to solve problems, but I couldn’t figure out what they were. Kirton provided answers based on the theory of cognitive styles.

What really intrigued me was that style is often confused with level of creativity, yet most people feel that the individuals using the innovative style are more creative. Probably because the more innovative individuals were often operating or suggesting ideas that were outside of the existing paradigm; thus, style was confused with level of creativity. I knew, for example, that some of the best problem solvers were plant production operators. These individuals were constantly solving all sorts of problems – that needed practical immediate solutions within the existing structure. Few people considered operators as “creative”. Even when asked if they felt tat they were creative, operators often answered – “no”. This view can easily lead to Adaptors being overlooked as a readily available source of clever, and, indeed, quite creative problem solvers.

Where do Fly Tiers Fit on the Measure?

I have measured the styles of many individuals, and have used Kirton’s theory to help teams solve problems more efficiently. The biggest efficiencies came from the realization that difference in styles of team members might have been contributing to communication, trust and other team problems. Once the team members understand the differences that exist on their teams, they begin to utilize this new found diversity to their advantage. The really exceptional teams do more than tolerate and utilize style diversity – they seek and welcomed it!

Still, somewhere in the back of my mind was that comment that Joyce made. Did she attribute the act of fly tying as being creative, or was it to my style that she was referring? I thought that it would be fun, as well as very informative, to know if the fly tier’s measurement was different from the population norm. Thus, to help answer the question, I began a study to determine the creative style of fly fishermen who tie their own fishing flies. I knew that in order to make any reasonable conclusions I would need a decent sized sample of data. I thought that it wouldn’t be very difficult to get the necessary data. I started with my friends and even though I knew them well, in spite of many promises and lame excuses only half would fill out a KAI. I also had some very poor results going up to fisherman on a river and asking them to fill one out, even after carefully explaining why I wanted it. They probably correctly concluded that I was a little crazy even to consider doing this. Fortunately I did, however, find some willing fly shops as well as guides during my fishing trips (to Montana and Utah) who actively participated in the survey.

But try as I did, I couldn’t get the sample size that I needed until I hit upon a different strategy. I developed a presentation on fly fishing in South Western Montana that was packed with vivid slides of the blue-ribbon Trout Streams, Yellowstone Park and the wildlife in that beautiful area. I targeted Trout Unlimited (TU) Chapters, and in return for giving this presentation I would get the opportunity, with the President of the Chapter’s support, to ask TU members to participate in the survey. It worked. I finally obtained a decent sized sample to help complete the creative style analysis of fly tiers. The results of the study (in Table 1) show that the fly fishermen who tie their own flies exhibit a wide range of creative styles.


Table 1
Scope of the Data for Participants

Fly shop personnel & guides 11
Technical background 21
Customer service 14
Management, consultants, sales 9
Teachers, students 4
Retired individuals 5
Occupation unknown 3
Total Number: 69


The data for the participants (of whom three are women) is shown in Table 2. The data when plotted follows a normal bell shaped curve with a mean value of about 104, with a standard deviation of about 16. The statistical analysis of the data indicates that there is a 95% probability that the mean of the fly tying population is 104. The immediate conclusion, based on the wide spectrum in scores, is that the population tested applies a wide range of creative style to the art of fly tying, even though there is a preference for the Innovative style. One way of summarizing this up is to say that fly fishermen may have a style closer to that of R&D personnel (about 102 – work by Kirton 1994) rather than production personnel, which is about 90, a large and significant difference.


Table 2
Scope of the Data Collected

Ranges of Scores Number
70-74 2
75-79 2
80-84 5
90-94 7
95-99 9
100-104 5
105-109 9
110-114 2
115-119 6
120-124 3
125-129 5
130-134 2
135-139 1
Total 69


There will Always be a Strong Drive to Improve the Existing Fly Tying Paradigm

Although there is a preference of the group tested for the innovative style, there are quite a few fly-tiers (two dozen of the 66 men surveyed) who prefer the adaptive style. Thus we can expect there are, and probably always will be, a number of fly-tiers who are constantly seeking to improve the existing techniques and rules that fly-tiers utilize. Further, as these techniques become published, and used, they will add to the level of knowledge, and continue to grow the existing paradigm. I expect that we will constantly see new tools that help make the fly tying process more efficient or easier. Different types of materials will be used; older materials will find new applications. Hooks will get sharper and stronger, and will be available in different styles. Thread will become thinner and tougher, and so it will continue on and on until eventually a new paradigm emerges.

There will Always be a Strong Drive to Shift an Existing Structure

The basic concept of the existing paradigm hasn’t changed since the first recorded description of fly fishing. I originally thought that the concept originated with the Macedonians. However, after reading Chapter Two, The Ancient Origins of Angling in Ernie Schwiebert’s book “Trout” I found out that the earliest recorded description of fly-fishing occurred in China. There is a painting done in the Chou Dynasty period that showed fishermen using bamboo rods, silk lines and gold hooks dressed in feathers from the kingfisher. This was centuries earlier than the famous Treatyse of Fshynge wyth an Angle published by Sir Isaac Walton in medieval Britain. It was even earlier than a third century AD publication. Aelianus wrote what might be the first recorded fly fishing literature. He describes using a hook wrapped with ruby-coloured wool and two dark wax coloured feathers. He also discussed the use of horsehair as leaders, and feathers of different colour. And, wow, look how far we have come! Fly-fishing for sport is a big multi dollar business. Think of all the shops, the equipment manufacturers, the guides, the lodges, the publications. It is a major paradigm indeed! Yet over time there have been very significant changes that that have transformed the art and still is. Some day someone will discover an entirely new “never been thought of before” concept that will radically change the paradigm. As in other fields, if and when it occurs, it will probably be resisted initially, but eventually catch on!

Applying the Concepts to a Business Paradigm

I was very fortunate to obtain pertinent data from a well-known fly fishing shop in West Yellowstone, Montana, as well as from prominent shops in other States. The owner of the West Yellowstone shop scored as a high Innovator. In contrast to the owner’s style the fly tying shop manager’s style was highly adaptive. None of the other shops measured had anyone who scored highly on the innovative side of the spectrum; nor were the mean scores of the personnel who worked in the shops strongly innovative; nor was there as great an extreme in difference in style between the owner and the employees, see Table 3.


Table 3
Mean KAI Scores of Fly Fishing Shops

Montana 104
Utah 99
New Jersey 91


Let’s take a stroll for a minute through the fly shop in West Yellowstone and the one in New Jersey. Immediately one notices a difference. The one in West Yellowstone is clearly the pacesetter. New equipment is displayed right up front. An employee is immediately available, ready, and willing to greet anyone who walks into the West Yellowstone shop. If the owner is there he always takes a moment to acknowledge your presence, “You are a valued customer” is written on every single employee’s face. There is a fresh pot of coffee right by the door as you walk in. The bulletin board on the wall tells every angler what flies are hatching and where the best action is in a 50-mile radius from the shop. I have never experienced anything like this in any other shop I visited.

Both fly-fishing shops merchandise an excellent assortment of fly-fishing and tying equipment. The shop in West Yellowstone, Montana, presents it is an entirely unique atmosphere. It is difficult to resist walking over to a display and looking through the merchandise. Even the West Yellowstone shop’s advertising brochure is different. Instead of the typical page after page assortment of pictures of items along with the prices, the West Yellowstone shop’s brochure is more than a catalogue. It contains fly-fishing stories, tips, interesting articles all mixed in with items for sale. Further, each year there are always new fly patterns and concepts that stretch the existing paradigm. As it happened, in this group, the more innovative were developing these patterns, and the more adaptive shop manager was developing, quite creatively, ways to commercialize these concepts. Every time I open a new catalogue from that shop in West Yellowstone, I look for new fly patterns. These flies are designed for those special problem situations when the trout just won’t strike – and this shop always has some clever design to solve any problem. I have even seen some of these new patterns displayed in the catalogues of other fly fishing shops. Pushing a stretching a paradigm is clearly a favourite characteristic of an innovator. But adaptors are just as creative, and I have seen them push at paradigm frontiers (from within) with equal determination and vigour when motivated. The key then is collaboration and team work between styles residing at this West Yellowstone fly fishing shop! This has to show in the bottom line of this business. I visit that West Yellowstone shop every year without fail, and spend more than a few bucks on fishing equipment.

I wish readers of this paper would make a comparison to their work place. What is the atmosphere of their business environment? Is it warm and receptive to change? Is its culture aimed at stretching and growing the paradigm, or merely concentrating on keeping the structure intact? Is the application of creativity concepts and principles welcomed? Is diversity in styles acknowledged, appreciated and sought after? Is there a communications gap between those more adaptive and those more innovators throughout all levels of the organization? Between management and labour? Most personnel in an organization are usually working on solving the same problems. Is there collaboration in problem solving? Is everyone participating? Is everyone aligned with the organization’s goals, or are they spending a lot of effort pushing or protecting their own point of view? Is a new idea immediately “killed”, or is it built upon and modified until it reaches a threshold of acceptability, and then turned into a profit, just like that shop in West Yellowstone?

When Will a Paradigm Shift Occur?

No one can accurately predict when a paradigm shift will occur. Some unforeseen event usually triggers it often first exploited by one more innovative. When it does start, most of us (adaptors and innovators) probably won’t recognise it, some of us will strongly resist it (for lots of reasons). But it will hang in there until finally some adaptors recognise the merits of the new concept, start to apply structure to it, and begin the process of building the new paradigm. When teamwork happens we all benefit a lot quicker! Just think what it will mean to the bottom line and growth of your organization when styles collaborate. Then, maybe the current “restructuring” craze will become a distant bad memory.

W. Diana is a registered Professional Engineer who has been awarded a number of US and Foreign patterns. As a senior executive in EXXON, in the 1990’s) he specialised in helping organisations create and sustain high performing teams.

1997