On Saturday, January 12, surfers from around the world converged on Maverick’s to challenge each other on the big waves that have made this a legendary surfing destination. The sixth Maverick’s Surf Contest had been announced only forty-eight hours earlier to ensure optimal wave conditions for the contestants. Surfers from as far away as Australia, Brazil and South Africa scrambled to make their way to this invitation only competition at Pillar Point, just a few miles away from San Francisco. It was magical to watch these athletes challenge twenty foot waves with an ease and grace that made it all seem so natural.
Beneath the surface, though, there is a different story here, one that contains important lessons for business executives. While all attention was on the athletes riding their surfboards, the technology and techniques used to master big wave surfing have evolved over decades, driven by dedicated, perhaps even obsessed, groups of athletes and craftsmen. Executives can gain significant insight into the innovation process by looking in unexpected places like the big wave surfing arena.
Innovations in big wave surfing
Surfing has a long and distinguished history. The activity had been pursued for centuries by the Hawaiians, where it was a central part of their daily life. Surfing was pursued with great rituals and it served a key role in Hawaiian culture to strengthen the status of the king and nobility relative to commoners. The surfboards used by the king and nobility were made of fine woods, and were long and very heavy, measuring up to 25 feet long and weighing up to 175 pounds. Surfing fell into disrepute and became virtually extinct in the 19th century under the pressure of newly arrived Western missionaries, who disapproved of the state of undress and mixing of sexes associated with surfing at the time.
Surfing slowly regained a following in the early part of the twentieth century but it was not until the early 1950’s that big wave surfing began to attract attention. Ten foot single-finned surfboards with a balsa core and wrapped in a new material coming out of the aerospace industry – fiberglass resins - were introduced in the early 1950’s specifically to tackle big waves – at the time considered to be 10 to 20 foot waves. Along with new materials like Styrofoam and polyurethane foam, surfboard shapers were able to cut the weight of the surfboard in half while increasing the strength of the board. These advances made the sport accessible to a much broader group of younger enthusiasts. Surfing enthusiasts in southern California developed a distinctive lifestyle and culture on the margin of 1950’s button-down culture. Known disdainfully as “surf bums”, one of the early participants indicated that “surfing was not something you did, but something you became.”
In 1953, a group of these southern California surfers, including Greg Noll, inspired by newspaper photos of surfers tackling fifteen foot waves, boarded flights to Hawaii and made the trek out to Oahu’s Makaha Beach. There, the warm water and gently tapered waves proved to be a fertile ground for the next stage of big wave surfing. A couple of years earlier, a mainland transplant by the name of George Downing, one of the early pioneers of big wave surfing, had come up with the idea of adding a changeable stabilizing fin to his surfboard to provide greater control. Known as an “elephant gun”, later shortened to just “gun”, these boards helped surfers to tackle 15 foot waves with ease.
In 1957, Greg Noll, one of the California émigrés, headed to the North Shore of Oahu where famed Waimea Bay became the next test bed for athletes seeking to push the boundaries of big wave surfing. In the isolation of the North Shore, dedicated surfers spent 8 – 10 hours each day, every day, challenging themselves and each other on the big waves of Waimea Bay. Using the skills and techniques mastered there, Noll succeeded in riding a 35 foot wave at Makaha in 1969, the largest wave ridden until that time, staying that way for another 20 years. In his autobiography, Noll described “looking over the . . . edge at the big, black pit. . . . I didn’t think so at the time, but in retrospect I realize it was probably bordering on the edge.” Noll had a magnetic personality and was instrumental in generating interest and publicity in big wave surfing, helping to build a very large surfboard business - Greg Noll Surfboards was the largest surfboard maker at the time.
It wasn’t until the early 1990’s that another surfing pioneer, Laird Hamilton, working with a couple of other surfing greats, came up with the innovations that would finally allow big wave surfers to tackle waves significantly greater than 30 feet. Hamilton and his team looked for inspiration to wind surfing where sails helped windsurfers to achieve the speeds required to tackle really big waves and flat water freeboarding where boats were used to tow surfers much like water skiers. From these arenas, Hamilton and his team latched on to the idea of towing surfers into big waves with inflatable Zodiacs and then jet skis. Harnessing a sling shot effect made it possible for surfers to gain the speed required to catch and ride larger and larger waves.
Tow-in surfing, as it became known, was further helped by insights from snowboarding. Working with leading surfboard shapers, Hamilton and his team challenged the conventional wisdom that longer boards were required to surf big waves and instead introduced much shorter boards with straps for the feet to provide much greater control in coping with the speed and turbulence of really big waves.
Pursuing these new practices and design ideas, Hamilton and the others working with him recognized that challenging larger and larger waves required a team effort. Honing their craft at Jaws, a break off Maui, these surfing teams by the end of the decade were regularly riding 50 foot waves with ease.
While many of the surfboard design breakthroughs and towing techniques were first developed on the relatively remote north shore of Oahu, groups of dedicated surfers around the world at big wave sites like Maverick’s in California and similar breaks in places like Western Australia and South Africa worked closely with each other locally to perfect the practices required to fully exploit the potential of these new technologies and designs. Practicing in isolation, these surfers would regularly convene to test their capabilities and learn from each other in big wave competitions in places like Maverick’s, Waimea, Todos Santos and Pico Alto.
Bottom line for business executives
So, what can business executives learn from the experiences of these intrepid surfers? First, if you want to push your performance levels, find the relevant edge. In the case of big wave surfers, there has been an ever-expanding search for the breaks that would produce bigger and rougher waves to test new board designs and surfing practices. Major breakthroughs in performance did not occur in the milder surf of Malibu, but in the pounding surf of Waimea and Jaws or the notorious Teahupoo break of Tahiti.
Following the lead of big wave surfers, business executives need to find relevant edges that will test and push their current performance. For example, companies making diesel engines and power generators should be actively engaged in finding ways to more effectively serve lower income customers in remote rural areas of emerging economies. These demanding customers could prompt significant innovation in both product design and distribution processes in an effort to deliver greater value at lower cost. The innovations resulting from these efforts on the edge could lead to significant improvements in their product lines more broadly.
Second, attract motivated groups of people to these edges to work together around challenging performance issues. There are great stories about Jeff Clark who surfed Maverick’s solo for fifteen years before the “break” was discovered by the broader surf community, but the real advances in surfing technology and practices occurred at the breaks where surfers gathered and formed deep relationships over extended periods of time. They learned rapidly from each other and pushed each other to go to the next level.
Large companies have become very adept at establishing remote outposts in places like Beijing, Hyderabad, Haifa and St. Petersburg to attract local talent and push challenging research and development projects. Often, though, these outposts either become disconnected from their parent companies or fail to establish deep linkages with other leading edge participants in the local area. The key challenge is to connect these company-owned facilities more effectively with their local environments as well as with each other through challenging and sustained innovation initiatives that build long-term trust based relationships.
Performance improvement generally comes first in the form of tacit knowledge that is difficult to express and communicate more broadly. You literally have to be there to gain access to this tacit knowledge. Big wave surfers who watched Laird Hamilton tackle the Teahupoo break in Tahiti for the first time in 2000 noticed that he put his right hand into the wave on a left breaking killer wave, something unheard of in surfing. It was an instinctive move on Hamilton’s part; he had never done it before and he was not even aware of doing it, but it was enormously effective in coping with the distinctive power of these waves. Those who were there to observe this and who had deep understanding of the practice of big wave surfing realized immediately that a powerful new practice was being developed.
Third, recognize that the people who are likely to be attracted to the edge are big risk-takers. Greg Ambrose, a surfer, observed that "When surfing Waimea it is essential to have the proper crazed attitude that implies a certain reckless disregard for personal safety. If you paddle out thinking you are going to get hurt, you will. If you think you can't make the drop, you won't. If you begin to wonder what in the world you're doing out among those menacing waves, it's time to be thankful you're still alive and head for the beach."
This is a key reason why the edge becomes such a fertile ground for innovation. It attracts people who are not afraid to take risks and to learn from their experiences. They have a different disposition, relentlessly seeking out new challenges. Executives need to be thoughtful about how to attract these people, provide them with environments to support risk-taking and reward them for both successes and failures.
The natural response is to create highly segmented organizations – one part of the company focuses on the core business while separate organizational units focus on highly innovative (and more risky) business initiatives. The challenge with this approach is to bring the edge back into the core. The innovations spawned in the edge organizations are often critical to the continued success of the core business, yet the different cultures, mindsets and skill sets create significant barriers to learning. Executives need to balance organizational focus with aggressive performance challenges and incentive structures that reward collaboration across these organizational units.
Fourth, recognize that the edge fosters not just risk-taking, but very different cultures that are also “edgy”. The advances in big wave surfing did not come from the casual surfers, but those who developed an entire lifestyle and culture, fostered by intense and even obsessive concentration on pushing the envelope. The early big wave surfers in Waimea were so obsessed they lived in close quarters right on the beach and relied on the sea and the occasional stolen chicken or pineapple for food. Dismissed as “surf bums” by mainstream society, they developed their own distinctive identity. Executives need to find ways to protect and honor these edgy cultures, whether it is the tattooed web designers or the next generation of employees who learned how to innovate as members of guilds in World of Warcraft.
Fifth, find ways to appropriate insights from adjacent disciplines and even more remote areas of activity. The aerospace industry could not be further removed from surfing, yet early advances in surfing technology came from this industry, because some of the employees in this industry were also avid surfers. Some of Laird Hamilton’s greatest insights came from his experiences as an expert windsurfer and his colleagues’ experiences with snowboarding. By attracting diverse backgrounds and experiences to the edge, executives can foster creative breakthroughs.
Sixth, bring users and developers of technology closely together at the edge. It is no accident that the most innovative surfers also tended to be expert shapers of surfboards. These folks not only designed surfboards but shaped the materials into the finished product and then took them out to life-threatening breaks to test them and refine them. They were relentless tinkerers, integrating experience, intuition and craft making skills to come up with creative new boards. Downing and Noll were both proficient shapers, driven by their experiences in using their own surfboards, and Laird Hamilton is the adopted son of one of the most renowned surfboard shapers, Billy Hamilton. Eric Von Hippel has written extensively about this phenomenon in other extreme sports arenas and the same pattern plays out here – technology and product innovations critically depend upon deep and extended interaction with leading edge users.
Technology and practice are intimately linked. Very little performance improvement comes directly out of the technology itself. It is only when seasoned practitioners engage with the technology, especially in close-knit communities, and evolve their practices to better use the technology that the real performance breakthroughs occur. One of the big wave surfers watching Laird Hamilton first getting towed into a big wave said the wave was no bigger than the waves that had been paddled before, but the technique was clearly different. It set the stage for a new “S-curve” of performance improvement. Evolving practices in turn generate insight to the product designers for future waves of design innovation.
Finally, executives could profit from understanding the loose practice network that evolved around big wave surfing. Key individuals like Greg Noll, Laird Hamilton and Jeff Clark have played pivotal roles in shaping and growing this network. They certainly have not applied the traditional management techniques that most executives use, but they have been very effective in attracting world-class talent, focusing that talent on challenging performance goals and helping to disseminate the learning that came from these efforts. Complex and shifting relationships among athletes, commercial enterprises and competitions shaped the advances we have seen in big wave surfing. These new management techniques, or perhaps more accurately, orchestration techniques will increasingly determine who creates value and who destroys value when seeking to innovate on the edge.
(Note: This is a longer version of a column that John Seely Brown and I have written for Business Week. JSB and I have written a working paper on Creation Nets that focuses more explicitly on the management techniques required to deliver business value from the kind of collaboration described above. Also, for other examples of innovation on the edge of other extreme sports, check out Eric von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation and The Sources of Innovation). Finally, for those really energized about this brief description of the history of big wave surfing, check out the fantastic documentary Riding Giants or just go ahead and buy Riding Giants (Special Edition) at Amazon. There's a clip from the documentary at Youtube that highlights the tacit knowledge example of Laird Hamilton surfing in Tahiti (hat tip to Ethan Eismann. For those who want to learn even more about the history of surfing, check out Matt Warshaw's excellent The Encyclopedia of Surfing.)