Why Corporate Innovation is Like Big Wave Surfing ...

Let me start by saying I don’t know anything about big wave surfing or in fact much about any type of surfing; though I have watched ‘Point Break’ a few times. This summer, a hastily reorganised holiday meant we spent ten days on the beautiful Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland at an Airbnb owned by Al Mennie. Al is a big wave surfer, ocean explorer, stunt double, model and also an author. Whilst staying in this stunning location I was drawn to read the books he has written, which are about so much more than surfing and made me think about comparisons with my day job .

Before we go any further, if you want to get some perspective on big wave surfing then watch this video of Brazilian big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira setting a new world record. The 73.5-foot wave she surfed on February 11 in Nazaré, Portugal was the largest wave surfed by anyone in 2020.

So, what has this got to do with corporate innovation?

Experience - you don’t just wake up one day and become a big wave surfer; it takes time and experience to build your confidence and you start on the smaller waves first. In the same way corporate innovators have to understand the core business first, build networks and learn to leverage the unfair advantages corporates can have such as brand, existing customers and funding all before they make the move to work in innovation.

Risk Management – Al talks in great detail about the risk management measures he puts in place before he goes in search of the monster waves. These range from impact vests, jet ski tows, rescue drivers, paramedics on standby and getting himself into great physical and mental shape. Exploring new ideas in corporate environments is risky and uncertainty is at its maximum at the beginning of a new venture. This is when tools like Business Model Canvas and Value Proposition Canvas come into their own allowing us to test and manage our biggest risks.

Team Sport – Only one person gets to surf the giant wave but ‘belief in myself, in my team and in each other is a necessity’. In the same way corporate innovation is a team sport, although usually only one person gets to pitch to the Investor Board. Building an innovation team with cognitive diversity is crucial to allow creativity and collective intelligence to thrive whilst removing personal biases.

Data – Big waves are normally found many miles offshore, made possible by the presence of underwater mountain ranges and canyons. It’s only relatively recently that oceanographic data has become available and interpreted so that big waves can be found. When innovating we also need to be constantly mining and interpreting our data to gain new insights.

Leap of Faith – Being a corporate innovator requires a deep belief in your own capabilities and in those around you. Although you’ll have analysed and understood your data and run experiments to test your riskiest assumptions, there comes a moment when you have to take the leap, i.e. let go of the tow and surf the wave. From my own experience this is the moment when the panic sets in; fear of failure is at its highest and we often delay prototype launches as we seek perfection. But as Al says, ”Panic is not an option when facing waves bigger than houses, far off the coast in freezing temperatures where risk is a premium” and ”When you feel like you are drowning, keep swimming.”. So, we just have to go for it.

Inspired by Al’s words, I took to my surfboard at least three metres into the surf at Portrush with the Atlantic waves at a good metre in height. I can honestly say I got nowhere near standing up on the board, not even close, but I did thoroughly enjoy myself and the fish and chips after were amazing.

Thinking I might stick to the day job.

If you would like to learn more

Al Mennie

Surfers House

Building Innovation Teams


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