Four years ago I gave a speech at The International Business Forum (IBF) in Newport Beach, CA on how innovation is like surfing. It was on the eve of Citi Venture's move to Silicon Valley and it seemed an apt metaphor. The metaphor still stands up today, but I figured it could use an update, just in time for summer. Here is the 2014 version:
1. Waves form a thousand miles out at sea.
It occurred to me back then that trying to harness the disruptive forces happening in the Valley from the other side of the country was a fool’s errand. Like trying to catch a wave forming miles off the coast. I had to go to where the wave was - become a member of the community, recruit a valley-based team who could bring their own networks and know-how to the table and help us sort out the most relevant trends and technologies for Citi. Now in 2014 we are confident that being here, engaged and involved is the only way to do this effectively. Getting the opportunity to see the future form and the chance to ride the wave is invaluable.
2. It looks easy but it’s not.
Watching surfers gracefully yet boldly ride monster waves is breathtaking. You see firsthand how seemingly at ease they are before and after the ride. Onshore there are plenty of high fives but there's also a cool nonchalance about them. It almost makes you think, “I could do that”. Until you try it. When you emerge half-drowned, board-scraped, bruised and beaten it becomes clear…this is no amateur sport. It requires endless practice and patience. Innovation is like that too. Done well it seems simple. But underneath the simplicity is an incredible amount of hard work, smart experiments, and spills that require us to get back up on that board and go again.
3. There are sharks in the water.
For surfers this is always a concern. A dangling foot can be a tempting snack. Innovation is about change. Let’s face it, human nature is resistant to change. It feels threatening. It challenges the status quo. It feels incongruent. There is comfort in what we know, what fits into our framework. Even when the disruptive factors are clear, what we know feels safer. At its core, change elicits the fear we will be no longer relevant. When you are the innovator, sharks move in quickly to ridicule, discredit, and challenge the need for change. But that’s part of what makes the ride so fun and something to celebrate when you have a good one.
4. People are watching from the beach.
Surfing competitions always draw a crowd. Like many sports, the crowd cheers the victorious and witnesses the defeated. I remember as a teenager my mother told me about the term “schadenfreude” when she found me sobbing over a hard loss. She told me that others can take joy in watching a David take on a Goliath and fall flat on his face. But like David, innovators know we have a purpose, we believe we can make the world a better place. And we know that the spectators watching us from a comfortable distance may applaud our victories or wince at our defeat.
5. Most rides are not wildly successful.
Ah, another fact of life in surfing. But one fantastic ride provides the motivation to keep trying. Perfect the approach, the entry into the wave, the footing. Because when it all comes together, the ride is worth all the practice. Innovation is precisely like that. Test, test, test, get it right. Don’t get discouraged. Be a maverick. Push the edges a bit further and bingo…it can be the ride of your life.
6. Storms can provide the best conditions.
Surfers are always on the lookout for the big waves. Often these occur when the weather is wild, and the rest of us are inside. But when Mavericks Invitational Surf Contest is called in Half Moon Bay, CA they come from around the world to try their luck. They courageously enter the raging swells. Innovation can be like that too. Ideas that didn’t work before may get their footing in a storm. It takes guts to do something ground-breaking. Timing in surfing and innovation is everything…along with some luck.
7. Intuition plays a critical role.
Talk to any great surfer and ask him how he chooses the wave to ride. He will say, ”I know it when I see it.” Intuition is something we are all born with. Unfortunately, traditional education usually drums it out of us by requiring evidence to support a thesis. Innovation requires listening, grabbing an inspiration and riding it where it goes. What happens next is the dots connect. For me I literally hear a bell go off when this happens. And then everything just falls into place - right people show up when I need them. You are in the slot….riding the wave.
8. Surfers hang together in a strong community.
They get energy from each other. They encourage each other to keep going. They learn from others' attempts. They assuage their fears. They share a common understanding of the sacrifices involved, the injuries incurred. Innovators are like that too. Numerous forums exist that bring together change-makers from across multiple industries. We hear from the best, we meet new potential partners, we leave refreshed and reinvigorated to push harder.
9. Honor the sea and each other.
Surfers love the ocean, the beauty of the waves, the chance for the perfect ride. But they also know it can be deadly. ‘Dropping in’ on another’s ride is uncool and could endanger both riders. It's part of the code. Innovators know this too. We love what we do and we understand the risks inherent in pushing the edges of convention. And we honor our partners, steadfast in the belief that in doing so we can create a winning ride for everyone.
10. It’s pure magic.
Any surfer will tell you about the ecstasy he feels when he slides into the shore after a killer ride. Everything that came before was worth it. Innovation is like that too. When dots connect and you feel that click of it locking in, you are momentarily invincible. It’s a rush. Dude, let's do it again!