The time has come where we can no longer control and isolate things and people into tiny and tidy boxes. Our current mentality runs short in this time where the current shift calls for leaders and organizations who are willing to adapt and navigate through a more undefined space. We have to be comfortable with uncertainty. We don’t have to be whimsical and frolic in pandemonium and whim. However, we have to wrap our heads around the reality of evolving forward without a blueprint and leave behind this more anachronistic model of “top down” thinking and centralized control. Whether you are an executive leader, middle manager, pastor, team leader, or teacher trying to navigate a new era with your team, we are in a monumental shift in a new global landscape that interconnects like the the waves of the ocean. As leaders, we need to be like the surfer that connects his team with this raw, indiscernible power of shift.
And yet we are stalled in a mind-set rooted in the Industrial Revolution while the world has become flat and interconnected. We tend to frame reality with an image of the assembly lines on factory floors with specific job functions organized by a few in control. This older paradigm leaves us stranded. We need to connect to a more lucid set of bendable, malleable rules where communication channels are open and rules and people adapt to needs as they shift. Think of places like the ocean, the internet, the markets, and our emerging global landscape. Think about a surfer.
The surfer is deeply connected to the randomness of the ocean. He responds to unsuspecting movements of the sea, finds its hidden momentum, and surfs. He finds the peak of the wave as it emerges and rides its evolving shape. He is at home in this randomness and thrives on the edge. Only on that edge of the wave can he create. Only on the edge of the wave can he live.
Our traditional thinking falls very short in this paradigm shift that is calling for leaders who are willing to move toward a more evolutionary stance, where power become distributed instead of isolated. It’s something more fluid and adaptive. We have to be comfortable with unpredictability and details that may appear chaotic. We have to wrap our heads around the reality of evolving forward instead of articulating movements from a blueprint. The old guard of precision, control, and manipulation must yield to high levels of interconnectivity and interdependence. In other words, we have to be okay with the more messy, evolving order shaping the future and begin to surf.
Leadership Must Learn to Surf
Leaders need to move their team out of their boxes and into the waves. The world is not just flat but intimately connected. Like the internet, our new world is like millions and millions of overlapping random networks, sloppily intertwining across a diverse landscape that interconnects everything and everyone. Because of this, it brings diverse and complex change that swirls in pulses and surges. As leaders, our landscape has become boundaryless. Our world today is interdependent with ideas and people constantly intersecting. We live in a time where we must accentuate adaptability and move to change like a surfer casually, but decidedly paddles into an emerging wave. As leaders, we must learn to be like that surfer on that wave, CO-evolving as he cascades down an “emerald wall.”
Today, conflict and cooperation exist in a dynamic tension. Unlikely but mutual dependencies are as confusing as they are common and as vital as they are complex. The world today with its highly connected networks quickly bring random change, but we live under a mindset that prefers control, precision, and predictability. We like to put things under our thumb. Although this is not natural, it has become second nature. However, in this new landscape, we must turn to a natural order that is more random and evolving, less controlling. As leaders, we must use uncertainty to innovative. To be successful and thrive as individuals, as leaders, or even as entire organizations, we must learn the art of surfing by leading our teams out of a confining box and teach our teams how to surf in an open ocean.
The surfer is tuned to the unfolding shapes and energies of the ocean. He converts the confusion of the water into energy to understand both the ocean and the wave. He finds the natural rhythm and connects. He’s not confused or bothered by the chaos of the sea but rather he fuses himself into its lineup. He uses the random order of its chaos and becomes a part of it. He listlessly bounces in the churning waters but is tuned to the ocean’s cauldron. He paddles into unsuspecting movements, finds its deep, hidden momentum, and interacts with its converging power. He surfs. He has no presets other than to surf the “line” and connect to the sea. He finds the peak of the wall as it rises from its 1000s of miles of travel, paddles towards it, positions himself in its emerging pitch, and rides its evolving shape. He is at home in the randomness and thrives on the edge of the uncertain, and only on that edge of the wave can he create. Only on the edge of the wave can he live. This “edge” is where we as leaders need to be, not as a location but a state of being.
Surfers are generally thought to be tumbleweeds that roll and bounce across the road at whim under no specific direction but the winds choosing. We are seen as flimsy and tossed around by a random breeze looking always and only for the next wave. Our attitude is thought to be, “Whatever dude” and “Dude, gnarly.” The perception of the surfer - flighty, undisciplined, temporary - is actually quite different from the truth. Surfers, although a bit more relaxed and “sandy” tend to be acutely aware of the “alternative,” the kind that doesn’t look like there is much there, the kind that seem unlikely. However, a surfer sees those things as opportunity. We see a storm or the churning of the sea and know that from that comes the wave. We see the randomness of awkward patterns as potential discoveries and new frontiers instead of just unfamiliar and unchartered landscapes. In the more awkward and unruly, we become more flexible, more alive. We tend to be in tune with the nuance and whim of nature and the unspoken currents of change.
This ocean is a system of constant disruptions and change, and we love this because this unpredictability creates our wave. It’s the system that constantly interconnects with different swells, currents, and the wind that create evolving shapes. It makes every wave and ride different. Every session is new. We depend on this unpredictability. We live in this unpredictability. We happen to like that it’s crazy, frenzied, and imprecise because that allows us to create and improvise. In that we find the intoxicating beauty of the wave and the powerful draw to the sea.
The time has come where leaders can no longer control and isolate things to tiny and tidy boxes. We have to realize the unparalleled power existing in a newer global network layered with free-forming, random relationships and networks that evolve and connect, like the ocean. We need to be able to put ourselves in this framework of thinking. We need to be like a surfer that connects with the raw, indiscernible power in the open ocean. We need to find that emerald green wall of water and immerse ourselves in its unfolding. We need to find our own, more natural way intrinsic to our design and open up to systems highly connected.
A Surfer is Flexible, Quickly Adaptable, and Evolving
Both leadership and their teams need to be immediately flexible, quickly adaptable, and always evolving. Like a surfer on a wave, we must be all these things always. For example, if you watch the physiological phases of a surfer on a wave, you’d see bouts of “bursts” next to the calm of evolving, fluid adaptation as both the surfer and the wave seamlessly blend from an explosive state of change into one lucid state of emergence. Leadership needs to itself be nimble enough to implement this combination of speed and agility alongside fluid adaptability into its teams.
There are three distinct phases for a surfer when he rides a wave. 1) The explosion of pulling and paddling into the face of the wave and snapping up to a stance like a race horse bursting from the gates, 2) the smooth drop and rolling down the shoulder of the wave like a warm sip of scotch, and finally 3) riding and creating on the edge of wave in an innovative state of natural emergence like an artist sculpting a piece of art or the quiet splendor of a silent snowfall.
First, when a wave begins to build on the horizon, a surfer drops to his chest on his board and decisively paddles to the wave. When he reaches its crest or face of the wave, he quickly pops up, swings his body and board around 180 degrees in one motion, puts the wave behind him, and then paddles, pulls and thrusts himself forward into the rolling pitch. As it rolls beneath him, he sinks into the momentum of the face of the wave and connects to its form as it lifts him, pushes him forward into the emerging shape, and in one fluid motion he immediately pops his body into a standing position to careen down the face of the wave. When he is in this stance and can find the invisible rhythm of the wave, he then begins to converge on its shoulder and methodically and creatively “carves” up and down the face of the wave like a sculptor driven with purpose and vision.
“The organization of the future will be based on the principles of adaptability rather than predictability. It will be an open organization that considers process more important than structure and human interaction more effective than impersonal chain of command hierarchy.” (Dr. Brabara Mink) There are two types of mindsets that stand out more these days as we become increasingly intertwined with this flux. They are very separate and distinct. The surfer is adaptive and flexible and innovates when flushed with disturbances and complexity, and the controller force-fits things into prescriptive functions with strict marching orders. There is a clear line between the surfer and the controller mindset. They act and think very differently.
The Surfer Mindset:
1. Paddles to the wave.
2. Interacts with the surf.
3. Creates on the wave.
The Controller Mindset:
1. Measures the wave.
2. Observes from a perch.
3. Predicts the next wave.
How a Surfer thinks:
2. Randomly interconnected.
3. Unpredictably Evolving.
How a Controller thinks:
1. Perfecty planned.
2. Hierarchically top-down.
3. Manipulate and control.
When I was a life guard perched in my tower, because the water was so cold and the currents erratic like I mentioned, the other lifeguards and I would take turns on the rescue board and paddle a mile or so out in the water to stay familiar with the cold and the currents. From far out, the beach and my tower looked small, the water was mind altering cold, and my sense of vulnerability was pricked as my feet dangled like bait on top of the water’s edge. I was quickly small and insignificant, but I became a part of the system. What happened next was the most important. Out there in the water, I experienced a “place,” an otherness. By paddling out and entering into the mix, I converged with the system and became a part of it.
Whether I was life guarding or surfing, the ocean wrapped itself around and through me if I engaged it. If I let it, its largeness and unstated power mesmerized me and presented vast opportunity. I could have easily gotten swallowed, but I learned to engage it like the micro financing organization kiva.org does with poverty so that it becomes exciting, almost personal. However, when I entered the system I had to let go of my need to control and harness the apparent confusion and transpose it into order so it could play like a wonderfully complex symphony, lucidly composing.
There are four points we need to understand as leaders why it is important to engage and interact with this new confusion. If we do this, we can experience the freeing and beautiful power of connectivity and its direct link to innovation. 1) If we stay in our perch, we stay disconnected. Our viewpoint from our lofty perch is comfortable and familiar, but it keeps us from the symphony. 2) We need to let go of our need to control. We must engage our environment and immediate elements to grapple with the realities of change and interconnect the system with networks and emerging communities. We must plunge into the water and taste its salt, its current, its chill, and its vastness. 3) Finally, we must interact with our system to connect to its vitality.
When enter the water and surf, I am instantly aware of its pulsating movement. It has an undefinable, chaotic, and mysterious surge that taps my psyche and strangely releases me to an unfettered paradise of calm. However, if someone is new to the sea, new to the board, new to this surge, and new to surfing, he/she could be undone and overwhelmed and panic if plunged directly out to sea.
Surfing is about direct interaction - the drop, the rush, the pulsating, rhythmic sea. Yet we fear its mass and power. We miss the wave and stay locked in sameness. Surfing for a leader or an organization is about connecting to what is natural, and then tapping into networks to become a part of its unpredictable and indeterminate creative reality.
Our Meddling Intellect
I know what you are thinking. By jumping in the water with the confusion there is instantly more coconfusion and complications. Understandably, that is the first glance. “Surfing” you might think will breed fear and confusion because you are in the ocean instead of watching from a safe perch.
I realize that “headspace” is important to all of us. However, getting wet and tasting the salt of the sea and even getting racked by a wave doesn’t take away our “space.” It actually creates space as it shakes us from sameness and exposes our minds to probabilites. It opens the mind and soul. Sure, at first it might feel like things all of a sudden get crazy. I remember the first time in the water when a wave tumbled and tossed me around, I freaked out and my board got washed to shore. When I composed myself, I realized the power of the ocean and eventually learned how to move with the wave. I quickly learned how to duck dive under the base of the wave with body and board. You come out the other side a little shaken, but unscathed and ready for the next wave.
The ocean, for example, like an open system does not grow the burden, rather it increases probabilities and possibilities and lessens tasks and busyness when you release control. When you actually release yourself to the wave and surf, the connection to the “otherness” is revitalizing.
There are two feelings that stand side by side as I drop down the face of the wave. 1) I have this immediate sensation of reckless freedom as my mind’s eye is caught in a flurry of release, and 2) it pushes me to metaphysically saunter over my human restraints. It is at that moment where the chaotic and a sense of purpose intersect and converge into a moment of divine ascension. It is in the very moment that I surf. I know this sounds a little zen, but this is where sustainable learning happens; it’s the kind of learning that goes deep into the soul, the mind, and stretches out ultimately into the network of the global landscape. This is where mentalities are changed. It’s where the transformation reshapes the individual narrative.
To experience this, we need to flatten and decentralize authority and information and push for communities to emerge, participate in the scramble for understanding, and then press the discovery. We must learn to build systems of natural components instead of cogs.
However, we are historically set up to be disconnected from the process and each other. We are funneled into parts and pieces that fulfill functions. The older system figures it’s best to set up a rigid structure to maximize the control of systems by separating parts and pieces into a place and order to increase human performance and therefore increase efficiency. Instead, this puts our divine creation to sleep. Perhaps it’s akin to Wordsworth’s warning in his “The Tables Turned” (1798). “Our meddling intellect/ Misshapes the beauteous forms of things.” We can choose though to challenge this way and re-pollinate a new vision. We can use transparency, accountability, and community to awake our inner purpose and natural bend and spread the conversation through the power of the network.
How does this work? Each leader and organization will have to figure out what best works for their culture, their needs, their industry, their segment, or their vision. Just as each surfer defines his own style by surfing, so to the leader will have to determine what works in the world that they lead. But several things do need to happen to start the process. First, we must learn to listen and interact with the system so that we can open and connect the system to itself. Second, the people and the system, if the power and the information is disseminated, begin to learn how to decide for itself what works and what doesn’t by exploring the content and its relevance through channels of accountability. Third, the structure must form itself in the image of the “webbing” of the internet - unrestrictive, multiplying, random connections under common value - so that it can move to discovery and then respond, like open source software. In reality it needs to follow the model and principles of of kiva.org or Facebook where highly connected, emergent, transparent, diverse, and simple systems connect and convert activity to measurable, effective outcomes.
In practice, we need to follow Wikipedia’s model of transparent and accountable editors and contributors, or Facebook where connections intertwine and expand random communities. Information needs to be funneled in and then quickly shared and edited and recreated by all players or agents that deem it necessary to contribute. This speed, if there is connectivity and transparency, will bring functionality and multiplication, and through unpredictable surges it can translate that information into movement, adaptability and innovation.
This Newtonian, or top-down structure dictates orders from a potentially very shallow and limiting pool of resources. I say shallow in that the pools of existing relationships (ideas) and the potential of new relationships (new ideas) are usually only from a few experiences and few connections of a few people. Therefore, the vast ideas of others within the community are untouched and unrealized. A living system however presents an array of unique, unfound solutions that are located directly in the people from yet-to-be-formed communities. The rich resources of these people and their combined experiences become the composite that form the new and the “unlikely.” Although the model is yet to be absolutely defined, it is clear that we must redo how we lead or it will be done for us.
This suggests we must create models of inner connectivity that push dynamic potential forward because the traditional setting leave us dry and wanting. These older command and control models illicit a practice of “repeating” instead of “creating.” Although these type of structures are slowly waning, their roots and practices historically still have strong influence in current leadership circles.
If executives or middle to senior managers, church boards and elder boards, school boards and executive committees are the only resources, the organization and the people will ultimately lose out on value and outcomes that unite and build the organization. Because there is no sense of true collaboration, connectivity, or creativity, churches, businesses, and institutions act too conservatively and push back on disturbance instead of letting it shake the system forward. They gingerly allocate their resources like people, money, and function in measured, careful, calculated predictions with little to no risk under a corporate notion of certainty.
Draw, Luck, and Iterate
Jack Dorsey, one of the cofounders of Twitter, was recently speaking at Behance also known as http://the99percent.com about the starting of Twitter and how its structure came about. He talked about three keys to Twitter’s success. And these points affect our conversation here: 1) Draw- Get your ideas out there, 2) Luck - assess and measure the market readiness and timeliness and “place” of your ides’s intro to market, 3) Iterate - Be a rigorous editor; listen to feedback; refine your idea continually. His three pillars are, interestingly, very similar to kiva.org (Dignity, accountability, and transparency). Twitter’s architecture was built around immediacy, transparency, and accountability. He says that through the community being the primary contributors of the changing shape of Twitter, Twitter’s primary role became that of an editor. He says a really good editor is not one that just listens to the loudest voice and makes that change to appease that voice. A strong editor takes in all the inputs, all the information, all the developments of the crowd and implements the change. Like the internet and its web, the ocean and the wave, and the people and our mind-sets, if we are to move up and out we too need to be diligent editors of this new content and listen to the populace.
For example, Twitter’s original tag line was “what’s your status?” Then it changed to “what are you doing?” And finally, as it reads today, “What’s happening?” Jack Dorsey said what was important was the question wasn’t generating a conversation that opened transparency and people weren’t enticed enough to join. So, through the suggestions of the community and Twitter acting as an editor instead of a top-down machine, the question changed to what it is today.
His latest project is called “Square” and will be more visible in the coming months, but his impetus of its launch (Point #2) was the financial crisis of 2009. The older model blew up. Totally and completely blew up. No one anywhere really and truly understood the complexity of the global financial market. It was run with abstractions and secrets. When the Great Recession happened, the total system clashed and imploded. It brought all of the hierarchical machines to their knees. They then scrambled how to figure it all out and quickly innovate and fix what colossally broke and tumbled down.
What Dorsey has seen work so well in this new era is in the underpinnings of Twitter. First, the older model wants things perfect and calculated, but Twitter sees things are more rough around the edges. Second, the older models wanted long and unmitigated speeches to emphasize their overarching control and manipulative hand of power, but Twitter sees the benefit of the constraint of 140 characters. It allows everyone to speak and contribute more often. Finally, the older models want seamless flow of executive orders from directives to implementation, but Twitter sees power in the rising influence of an interruptive nature. Twitter, instead wanted to expose all of the secrets of the older structure and break down all of the abstractions to simple bits understood by anyone. As Twitter took on this role of editor, they learned how to use the suggestions of the community, the total populace, the crowd and implement the change. Twitter became an engine that could draw something out, recognize it for what it is, and then share it to the whole system. This is where approachability, immediacy, and transparency became their capstones that allowed them to evolve through collective wisdom.
As Twitter has exposed the new era of this immediacy and approachability, the leader and the organization must also deal with the change. Its not just that Twitter has created a venue where we can all Tweet. Although that is true. What is most revealing is that it exposes how an entire mentality and older model is shifting to a brand new way of thinking. If systems are to be innovative, they have to learn to become the editors through approachability, immediacy, and transparency within a changing context and an emergent crowd.
Organizations do not need to simply and only outsource with vendors to increase efficiency, market major price reductions, outmaneuver the competitor with cheap labor in India, or move manufacturing to a warehouse in China to maximize production. Although some of these strategies might need to accompany all this, we need an interconnecting network of micro communities of 6- 12 members that spring up like popcorn in a microwave that innovate within the interdependencies of the system through a conversation under the pillars of kiva and Twitter. Then those teams need to be able to interconnect within the world of other micro communities, that then connect again with the community of the whole organization, that then usher in real change by acting on real information.
It is imperative that transparent conversations happen instead of supervisors monitoring an employee’s clock time and then scold them for being 5 minutes late. The question becomes, “How do you encourage innovation while minimizing fear and panic that is entrenched deep within the structure?” The premise for the solution, although very layered in its unfolding, is to open transparent, participative, hierarchically flat conversations so that the information becomes shared and communal in order to find dynamic answers to evolving realities.
We must learn to look within our organizational walls whether it is a church, a school, or a company and tap the sleeping spirit of innovation deep within our core. We need to find unfound answers in unlikely relationships by letting go of the nuance of power. This notion of manipulation produces an unreal sense of productivity, and it may look good on excel spread sheets to shareholders and executives and church members. Where in actuality, these excel spread sheets animate and contort results like hand puppets. The key is in the people, but it isn’t necessarily just asking one employee at a time what the answer might be. Instead, it’s about collective wisdom from a whole bunch of random employees interacting freely together that also have the authority and autonomy to interpret, think, respond, and act.
I am not advocating the need to do away with tough choices within any firm – downsizing, layoffs, mergers – nor am I saying the employees should have the run of the show under a leaderless society. What I am saying is that like Ricardo Semler believes, we need to learn to manage without managers. We miss the mark when the dominant framework is ruled through a perception of power.
Historically, we have been herded like sheep, shuffled around like chess pawns and sacrificed for a “checkmate.” In many companies or organizations, when things are difficult or “tough” decisions have to be made, the categorical response has been to cut pay or cut people. As a businessman I understand the logic to a point, and I clearly understand cutting expenses when revenue is superseded by heavy expenses. I have hired, fired, and cut expenses when it is necessary. I have lived through a downsize and forged ahead in a downturn. Excess is generally just bad business and running a lean and tight organization is a fundamental and key discipline. However, the answers for the future days are not just that cut and dry. You can’t just open the butcher drawer when things get tough and dice away thinking everything that doesn’t contribute perceived revenue is fat. It’s true that lean is crucial but for actual betterment and sustainable innovation, dynamic and unlikely relationships are a primary component.
The people in this incredibly evolving landscape of change, the new workforce of the Facebook and Twitter mentality, will no longer tolerate such blatant disregard of their potential and of their person. The companies can no longer afford to misstep the handling of their greatest asset in this exploding change - the people. If we are to survive, we need to recognize that typical models can no longer innovate at the level that is required to excel. We must turn our mindset into the highly evolving internet, the rapidly expanding pages of communities on Facebook, and the intermingling waves of the sea.
Proceed with Slowness
Teaching leaders to surf can transform the conventional command and control into participative, interconnected conversations with peer groups as leaders and random communities that innovate. The model establishes an evolving environment of interconnectedness with its people, its processes, its management, its leadership, and its vision. Although the current state of change is circumventing traditional models, moving from a command and control style to a more flattened hierarchy must be introduced with skill and careful attention, even a slowness. It is critical that the transition happens with keen oversight and pliable insight. It could shock the system too much because this type of shift is difficult and even startling. It needs gradual buy in and a period of adaptation and learning instead of a total and immediate overhaul. Even though it’s about infusing resiliency into the system, management and even the people will have its fears.
It’s Not a Free-for-All
However, given those fears it’s important to understand that this is not a free for all where anything goes and innovation is pursued at all costs and with any kind of structure that bubbles to the top from anyone that fogs a mirror. Remember, we need subdued controls of accountability that stretch from the center. It still demands a code of accountability to keep performance targeted with measurable results that feed back and filter through foundational values and mission of the organization. There is a center where all conversations and community relationships spin outward, and it will flourish under this system that is measured by momentum, agility, innovative capability, and flexibility.
For example, Gary Hamel in his book "The Future of Management" tells us that Whole Foods has four conditions that must be met under their structure of a living system environment: 1) First-line employees are responsible for results. 2) Team members have access to real-time performance data. 3) They have decision authority over the key variables that influence performance outcomes. 4) There’s a tight coupling between results, compensation, and recognition (Hamel, p 136).
In a company or organization for example, living systems provide not only a perceived notion of participation but a real value exchange, but it specifically structures a company so the people then want to participate with the output of the company’s ventures. They are actually inspired. People are encouraged to be a part of what the company is doing, what the company is creating, how the company is thinking, what the company is, and even what the company is planning. They have a sense of meaning, they have a sense of worth, and they have an outlet of creativity that reflects their direct efforts and not just the output of an edict written in a company memo.
There is greater ownership where the people get to not only feel valued but get to literally see that their input is valued and potentially implemented, as opposed to the older models where control was the mantra and microscopic participation was a feigned effort to pretend that opinions outside the boardroom mattered. Gary Hamel continues, “With no more than a knothole view of the company’s financial model, and only a sliver of responsibility for results, it [is] difficult for an employee to feel a genuine burden for the company’s performance…And worst of all, [it] disconnected employees from their own creativity. In the industrial world, work methods and procedures were defined by experts and, once defined, were not easily altered” (Hamel, p. 141).
Instead, under a living system, people have autonomy but are also held accountable. I know this sounds like an oxymoron (“jumbo shrimp, almost always”) but to give someone self-governance around a centered set of foundational values, keeps the conversation pertinent and focused. This then allows the networks of conversations that spin outward to add and even increase intrinsic value to the system or the person. These few things will begin to help bring naturally spontaneous and emergent relationships, the place where things happen, without the hindrances of explicit boundaries. The real opportunity happens here when we are freed to create and experiment and stretch all the while being held accountable to progress.