Surfing the Waves of Change


“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ― Lao Tzu

In 2004, ten-year-old Tilly Smith of Surrey, England, was on Maikhao beach in Phuket, Thailand. Tilly had learned about tsunamis recently in school and told her parents that a tsunami might be imminent. She recognised the signs of receding water from the shoreline and frothing bubbles on the surface of the sea and alerted her parents, who warned others on the beach and the staff at the hotel Phuket where they were staying. The beach was evacuated before the tsunami reached the shore, and Maikhao beach was one of the few beaches on the island with no reported casualties.

Tsunamis are very difficult to predict, but they are preceded by some trends that are recognisable if you are vigilant as young Tilly proved. Tsunamis are devastating. They appear all of a sudden and by the time people realise there is a problem it is often too late. I use this as an analogy for the rate of change in the business world and the need for businesses to be proactive and learn to surf the waves of change.

That is the theme of today’s Thursday Thought.

Exponential Change

The following (Gedanken Experiment) Thought Experiment illustrates exponential growth. Imagine you are in Wembley stadium sitting in the highest seat. On the pitch below you see a match official drop a single drop of water on the pitch. After one minute they drop two more drops on the pitch. Next, they double that and drops four. Each minute thereafter the drops are doubled. In effect, the water drops double every minute. Now, imagine the stadium was sealed so the water could not escape.

If the official continues to double the number of drops every minute, how long do you think it would take to submerge Wembley?

From the very first drop, to completely filling the stadium it would take a mere 49 minutes!

Following is the really important question…

How long before do you think it would take before the water reaches the first seats on the pitch and covers the heads of those sitting there?

This part takes 45 of the 49 minutes.

This means that by the time the first people start to realise there is a problem, the rest of the 90,000 people have only got 4 minutes to escape.

This is why we see companies, who are not proactive with ongoing innovation strategies, culture and digital transformation programmes fail. When it happens it appears to happen overnight. One day they are discussing the need for a new strategy (or perhaps not at all), the next they are bankrupt.

When we couple exponential growth with Moore’s Law, (the observation (made in 1965 by the co-founder of Intel Gordon Moore) that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. Essentially the power of circuits doubles, while they get smaller and smaller. This is illustrated by the modern smartphone is more powerful than the computer used by NASA during the Apollo mission.

My point in illustrating exponential change is to highlight how quickly change happens in today’s business world, so leaders need to be informed, vigilant and brave. They also need to listen to their “Tilly” who is calling out problems.

Avoiding the Iceberg

Leaders have a lot to manage, keeping an eye on tomorrow while managing today. However, many companies in many industries know they are headed for an iceberg, but so few of them take meaningful action to avoid it. Instead, some choose to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic while partaking in tick-the-box brainstorming sessions to tick an innovation box and appease the board or perhaps a vocal gainsayer in their team. As we discussed on recent innovation shows with Greg Satell and Amy Radin you cannot change the business without winning the minds of the people (and the networks they form.)

Many captains of many ships are warned by their crew-mates that there is an iceberg dead ahead and choose not to act. These “captains” are either too focused (and incentivised) on the near term or have an “Après moi le déluge” (After me the flood) approach to their leadership. This might be because they are nearing retirement or they are happy to manage short term growth and stasis.

These same “leaders” know the iceberg is coming but wait until the very last minute to take action (the final four minutes in the Wembley thought experiment). This action is akin to a huge swerve to avoid the iceberg. The ship goes up on its side, the bow scrapes of the iceberg, a department or two of the ship fall off into the icy waters, some may even jump off, some have hidden lifeboats and slither off into the sunset.

When the storm settles and the ship regains composure, there has been huge collateral damage, but all hail the captain who saved us from hitting the iceberg???

The infinitely more impressive leader is the one who preempts the iceberg coming well in advance of any impact and there is no negative impact on the business at all.

Understanding the Trends: “The Pathfinder of the Seas”

In 1855, the first book on Oceanography was published by Matthew Fontaine Maury. Maury was nicknamed “The Pathfinder of the Seas”. When a leg injury left Maury unfit for sea duty, he devoted his time to the study of navigation, meteorology, winds, and currents. Maury observed patterns in logbooks left by sea captains travelling the North Atlantic. The captains recorded their daily locations, as well as the speed of winds and currents. Maury extended his research by asking sailors to put messages in bottles. The message noted the ship’s location when the bottle was thrown overboard. When the bottles washed ashore, the finders were asked to send Maury a note telling him where they found the bottle. In this way, Maury could figure out more detailed ocean current patterns and add them to his charts.

How many Matthew Maurys have come and gone from organisations? Changemakers run the risk of being ignored, ostracised, vilified and fired, it comes with the territory. Changemakers sense patterns, changemakers hunt information to qualify hunches, but changemakers often fail. To any changemakers reading this, you may have experienced a company you left implementing ideas you proposed a decade ago and that can be extremely frustrating. The thing to remember is that the business must back the idea, they must get the credit, not the innovation team, not the head of digital, not the head of HR. The business must get the credit, not you.

The real change comes when business leaders are convinced that they must shift their mindset from a competitive mentality to a collaborative one. Here is a way to visualise the mental shift.

There is a tsunami coming for your business, which is represented as a small island. You can decide to build a protective shield, but the waves of change will batter it down in time. The alternative is really your only choice. You can learn to understand the trends, like Matthew Maury and you can be vigilant like ten-year-old Tilly Smith in Phuket or…

You can learn to surf the waves of change.

On this week’s innovation show, we talk to the author of “The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company”, Amy Radin.

We talk about:

Changemaker Frameworks for Change

How to seek innovation

How to overcome resistance

How to seek support



How to embed change

Building Support

The Army of the Willing

Building an External Network





The Gift of 3 Questions

If established enterprise incubate and launch new business models

Have a listen:







More about Amy here:

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