Innovate or Die! Surfing the Big Waves

May 24, 2016


Waimea Bay is a legendary Big Wave surf break off the North Shore of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. The Qucksilver Big Wave Invitational is a competition commemorating legendary Hawaiian surfer and Oahu’s first lifeguard, Eddie Aikau. In the last 32 years, this competition has only taken place 9 times due to the tournament’s key parameter - ocean swells need to be at least 20 feet (6.1m) high before the competition can be held.


Seasonal currents, oceanic topography, storm patterns and the mysterious gravitational pull of both sun and moon all converge to create the winter swells at Waimea. Those with the heart, skill, instinct and will to ride this wave do so knowing that deep knowledge of local conditions is critical to both the preparation and timeliness of their endeavour.


In it’s essence, innovation is neither thing nor process, but rather a phenomena that occurs as consequence to the rising of the radically novel. Big wave surfers at Waimea Bay understand this dynamic – the rush of power, joy and mastery as reward for nature’s capacity to facilitate their emergence.


Like the wave at Waimea, there is a specific set of conditions that stimulate innovation in human systems. Experts in innovation, Jeffrey Goldstein, James K. Hazy and Benyamin B. Lichtenstein, describe these conditions in their book, Complexity and The Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation.


They name the first of these conditions, criticalisation, and describe it as, “the effect of internally or environmentally generated shocks that disrupt the inner workings of an (organisation).” They go on to list 10 ways for an organisation to identify itself as operating within the conditions of criticalisation:


  1. An increasing sense that what (they) had been doing is no longer working.

  2. A sense of urgency begins to enter planning sessions and executive meetings.

  3. Well-crafted plans for entrepreneurial expansion are not working out; targets are pushed off from one quarter to the next, expectations are continuously reframed and the pace of internal change increases rapidly.

  4. Performance declines due to shifting markets and changing environments – the organisation’s traditional reliance on specialised activities or offerings is no longer effective.

  5. Concern that all of the small changes will never add up to what is needed, that something really big is necessary.

  6. Competing interpretations and passionate disagreements about the meaning of external events for the organisation, including which events are relevant to the organisation and what should be done to address them.

  7. Increased interpersonal conflict-constructive and destructive-puts line employees and supervisors on edge.

  8. Increased individual anxiety and a growing divergence of organisational goals and the individual’s best interest This can show up as higher turnover or generalised questioning: ‘Should I stay or should I go?’

  9. Conditions of uncertainty, which persist even in the face of attempted changes, or when normal efforts to reduce their significance or credibility are resisted.

  10. Sometimes, extraordinary means such as coercion begin to be used or threatened.

  11. The future of the firm is called into questions; calls to ‘break-up the firm are heard.

(Goldstein, J., Hazy, J., & Lichtenstein, B., 2014. Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Non-linear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation, New York: Palgrave McMillan, p. 50)


Big wave surfers at Waimea engage in the practice of ‘active waiting’, observing seasonal storm patterns and readying themselves for nature’s bounty. Leaders of organisations must also anticipate signals of instability and prepare themselves for the opportunities that accompany them. Only then can they consider the ensuing, dynamic interplay between surfer and wave to successfully ride the cusp of change and reap the rewards of their own emergence.


Next time we’ll look at relationships, constraints and parameters as the essential conditions that enable leaders to generate cultures of innovation.


Until then, this is Susanna Carman inviting you to wax your board, watch the weather and do some push-ups…

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