Innovation in 2018: Think Like a Surfer

Jan 5, 2018

Dion Weisler, the CEO of HP Inc., was born in Melbourne, Australia, and — not surprisingly — spent some time on the waves as he was growing up. “It’s a bit like asking an Austrian if they ski,” he deadpanned during my interview with him last year for The New York Times.

So when Weisler went hunting for a useful metaphor to help everyone at HP think about innovation, he didn’t stray far from his roots. His surfing framework for thinking about the three different timeframes of innovation — now, near-term and long-term — is one of the most memorable I’ve come across.

It’s also a stellar example of a key skill for all leaders, who have to find creative and deceptively simple ways to make big ideas stick for all their employees. And creating a culture of innovation can be one of the toughest challenges, because it’s almost inevitable that people’s attention will be pulled into focusing almost entirely on the present, when they should be thinking along three different timeframes.

Here’s Weisler explaining his “three waves of innovation” idea:

“Wave one is the wave you’re on at the moment, the current core business,” he said. “Wave two is about looking at all the waves that are coming in and deciding which one to choose. That’s about growth. And the third wave is what all great surfers do, which is to go home and pull the weather reports and figure out when the next big one is coming. In business, that’s pure invention and category creation.”

This theme of different horizons for innovation came up often during my hundreds of Corner Office interviews. James Hackett, the CEO of Ford Motor Company who ran Steelcase when I spoke with him in 2012, devised a visual of concentric rings around a bull’s eye to help people think about innovation.

“You put ‘now’ in the center, and the outer ring is ‘near’ and the furthest ring is ‘far,'” Hackett explained. “And you ask yourself, if you analyzed your calendar, how much time do you spend in each of those three zones? And what is the right amount that you should spend?”

Hackett added: “What I’ve argued is that you have to train yourself to work in all three dimensions simultaneously. It’s human nature to get pulled into the now, and the reward systems are built that way. You have to think of it in terms of making good on this notion that if you’re really a great leader, you’re going to be noted for it long after you’ve been gone. That’s because you actually reached out and imagined the state of things in the future.”

Adam Bryant is managing director of Merryck & Co., a leadership development and executive mentoring firm. A veteran journalist, he interviewed more than 500 CEOs and other leaders for the Corner Office column in The New York Times. He is the author of two books, including “Quick & Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation.”

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