You can't control the waves, so learn to surf

Jan 10 2012 by Max McKeown Print This Article

Anyone living through 2011 has learned that the waves of change are bigger than any individual, company, or nation. They are also more complex. You can create something new but there is no way of being sure who will use it or what they will use it to achieve. The trick is to learn to read the signs and then ride the surf all the way to shore.

The Polynesians were master navigators who travelled without compasses or sextants. They learned to read the patterns formed by waves. They observed that when waves hit an island some are reflected back while others are deflected but continue on in a modified form. Each navigator used the motion of the canoe to feel the way across the ocean.

Recognizing Waves is a mixture of history and fashion. There are big waves that roll through society over decades, centuries, even ages. Then they are smaller waves, even ripples that change what is popular and what isn't, and what is possible and what isn't. Each industry has its own waves. Each company affects, and is affected by, waves outside of its control but within its influence.

Thinking about big waves deepens understanding about the direction of human preference and progress. One example of this is the communication wave. Humans find communication valuable. Evolution has favoured our ability to talk, to conceptualize, and to exchange our opinions with others.

Each generation shows interest in methods of improving communication: from cave paintings to the printing press; from messengers running between cities to telecommunication satellites orbiting the planet. If you create a way of connecting people that is better, richer, faster, and easier then it will replace the old way. From letters to email onwards to facebook and then twitter.

Surfing waves is a mixture of suppleness and strength. You don't know exactly what is coming so adaptability matters as much, or more, than initial direction. Being fast matters because you only have a limited amount of time to complete each activity before the next wave.

You don't have long to complete each improvement and get it to customers. Being bold also matters because you have to attack each new wave with enough strength and the right form to get through it without being killed. Wiping out occasionally is an intrinsic hazard but dying is to be avoided.

It's harder than riding a bike because you can't depend on the road to stay still. It becomes even harder when you have to compete with other people and cope with the additional movement, ripples, and waves that they cause. You can't simply look on a map because you are trying to reach uncharted islands.

Data is only available about past waves, so theory is needed to predict future waves. It's not the froth; it's the shape that matters. We place bets on our ability to recognize patterns that give us a hint about what will happen next, or what the world will want next that we can provide.

Immersing yourself in the cultural, political, and social ripples, currents, waves, and storms allows you to better navigate because you will recognize shapes. Surf the most popular and least popular of everything: music, movies, sport, theater, presidential campaigns, scientific journals, night clubs, clothing, celebrities, and technology.

Talk to people, watch people, use your own product, and use your competitor's product. Travel locally and internationally. Visit new places, make something with your hands, and create a piece of art. Each new experience, particularly if it is not a lifelong commitment will deepen your working understanding of waves.

Individual waves give you choices. You can head towards our original direction hoping the destination you can feel is somewhere you want to go, or changing direction because the wave is good for your particular skills, or because the beauty or challenge of wave just attracts you. Try moves just to see what happens, forget the big prize and just let go.

Strategy, like surfing, sailing, or snowboarding emerges from the interaction between our choices, those of others, and the environment. Continually adjusting your balance, your direction, your speed, and your destination is the best way of surfing waves you can't control.

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About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.