After philosophy Friday and career Friday, I am starting a new series of articles, to appear one Friday per month, and which will be called management Friday. These articles will be all about what surfing can teach us about the art of managing teams.
Guéthary, Basque coast, 10.00 am. A surfer has arrived at half tide and scans the sea; it is going to be a good day – 6 foot waves breaking regularly and a light easterly wind. After watching for a few minutes, he notices that not only do some series of waves break earlier or later, but also that in some series the waves are higher than 7 feet.
The ocean is a constantly changing system. A wave arrives from afar; it is shaped by the wind and is subject to the effects of tides and currents. Each wave is different and each day’s surfing is unique. A wave breaking at Guéthary, formed by a depression in the north Atlantic, will cover thousands of miles before this surfer, scanning the horizon, will surf it.
Obviously a surfer studies the sea before entering the water, so as to better understand this environment; but he is also fully aware that this turmoil of water is constantly changing. The surfer is not in the least concerned by the chaos and the unpredictability of waves, on the contrary, he loves it – it enables him to create, to adapt and to harmonise himself with the movement of the water.
Similarly, a manager must accept the fact that life, society and the world are in a state of flux. He or she must accept, just like the surfer, that nothing is certain, that nothing happens exactly as planned and that things can change in an instant. Anyone reading this who surfs will know that a wave can shift suddenly by several feet and spit you out because you were not in the right position. There is no shortage of examples of companies or managers who missed the wave – Airbnb for the classic hotel business, Uber for taxis, iTunes, Spotify, etc., for the music business; all these are like our wave in Guéthary and are generally called a avalanche.
It wipes out everything in its path and forces managers to change their model. A surfer is used to adapting, and here is an additional lesson for the manager – the idea of contingency and the capacity to cope with the unexpected. The time when a manager knew where he was going and had his perfect 3-year plan is over. Today, just like a surfer, he must keep a weather eye on the environment, deal with increasingly difficult events and always stay connected with his network (thank you internet!).
Just as avalanche takes shape thousands of miles away, so too can a competitor suddenly appear from the other side of the world. These unexpected events upset, alter and often overturn our carefully laid out plans. A surfer, unlike a sailor, doesn’t know where he is going – he surfs, i.e. he is in motion, adapting to external forces. This art should be taught in all management schools; the ability to adapt to the random nature of things and the squally climate of business – to make the best of the unexpected, to surf the wave and let it take you to your destination.
After a new appointment in the line up, this is like the sweet spot where a surfer waits, the place where the sea rises up before the wave breaks.