Learning To Brave The Big Waves Of Innovation

Innovation is like surfing—scary, challenging, and ultimately exhilarating. Here's how to dig deep and find the courage to actually do it.

I started surfing about 10 months ago, and it has been one of the most challenging and rewarding learning journeys of my life. Technically, I'm a little past the age to become the next Kelly Slater, but my 15-year-old son had asked me continuously for three years to start surfing with him so we could spend time together and go on surf trips. We'd studied martial arts together for ten years, got our black belts together, traveled and competed nationally, and had a common bond that was very special. We hung our belts up about three years ago and he started surfing and became very good. I continually sat on the beach, watching and wishing I could be out there with him, but I found myself using every excuse to avoid giving it a try. I had tried many years before and nearly drowned in six foot waves on a nine foot board. I was afraid of getting back in, trying, and failing again.

Last summer, I was at a board meeting and a member from New York was talking about how much he loved surfing, and asked me if I surfed. A week later I was with a friend in Boulder and surfing came up again. I live in one of the world's best surf spots and my answer was always "No, I don't surf." Frustrated at my own answer, I got in the water the next weekend, got up on my second wave (with a push), and have been surfing every possible day since.

Fast forward to last week when I was sitting in between continuous 10-foot sets at Witches Rock during my son’s and my first surf trip. We'd taken an hour-long boat ride to get to waves that were 8-10 feet and breaking with a powerful intensity that I hadn't experienced before. I was nervous, so I sat and watched my son take the biggest waves I'd ever been in with courage and a skill that made me proud, concerned, and thankful I was with him. He caught wave after wave, waves that can kill you if you don't know what you're doing, and waves that on that day I just didn't have the courage to charge into. Even though I got enormous satisfaction watching him, and while he validated my decision to sit them out, I looked up at the rock and felt like I was literally sitting between a rock and a hard place.

I just didn't have the courage to charge the most powerful waves I had ever encountered. When we got back to our hotel, I was totally frustrated and disappointed with my lack of courage, because I had the chance to ride some of the best waves in the world, and I ditched. Needless to say, we went back out the next day on one of the roughest boat rides I've ever encountered. When we arrived at Witches Rock and later Ollie's Point, I was determined to ride the waves, so I found the courage and charged, albeit they were smaller.

Sitting on my board between the sets, I began thinking about this journey of learning to surf and what it takes to do something new for the first time. They say it takes 1,000 waves, or 10,000 hours, to become a master at anything, and this experience validated that. It's also analogous to the innovation work we do with large companies and the ingredients required to bring disruptive and breakthrough solutions to market. Oftentimes, we work with highly motivated and very talented small teams who have to navigate the powerful and unpredictable waves of executive management. It takes a special combination of the following traits for an individual or a team to succeed at innovation:

1. The Courage to Charge the Big Waves
There is no shortage of new ideas in the world, and ideas without execution are just that, ideas. It’s vital to have the courage to champion your idea with passion and conviction, take the appropriate risks to ensure that it goes from a sketch to a finished product, and the tenacity to ensure that nothing gets in the way of seeing it to commercialization.

2. The Skills to Ride the Waves
You can have an idea but lack the skills needed to bring it to life. Map a plan to ensure you acquire the skills, or you are able to bring people onto the team who have the skills, needed to bring your idea to life in a timely manner. Some of the best ideas languish because of founder pride or a team trying to do things they're not qualified to do. Time is one of innovation’s biggest enemies.

3. The Patience to Keep Going
Original thinking and disruptive solutions take incredible patience. Patience is vital, because dealing with enormous barriers to entry, such as giant egos, and ridiculous internal hoops and regulations, can make it feel impossible to see the finish line.

4. The Humility to Listen to Others
Innovators are oftentimes single-minded visionaries, and innovation teams often live outside of the everyday business. While it's important to tune out the noise and distractions, it is also important to listen to the input of trusted advisors and experts around you. Have the humility to know when you're stuck, admit when you don't know the answers, and find experts who can help.

5. The Determination to Keep Going
Innovation is hard, because it means finding new and original ways to solve a problem, or inventing something completely new. There are always significant barriers and people in the way, and the journey is always laden with challenges, reasons to quit, and opportunities to take the easy way out. It takes incredible determination to do something new for the first time and overcome the obstacles to success.

[Image: Flickr user Roger]

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