What can Riding a Paddle Board Teach us about Innovation?


As winter finally comes to a close it is inspiring to see the trees starting to bud and the tulips sprouting through last year’s decomposed leaves. With all of this vitality I can’t help but think about the summer ahead and the fond memories of summers past. One memory especially comes to mind. Last summer while on Vancouver Island with my family I was able to experience paddle boarding for the first time. Personally I found it be an incredible experience but learning to stand up and stay dry required a tremendous amount of mental and physical focus. In thinking about this experience I couldn’t help but see the parallels in these learnings to my day job helping organizations across North America to accelerate innovation. I’ve shared these below along with some advice on how to succeed!

  1. Never look down; Always look ahead – The first thing anyone will tell you about paddle boarding is to always look ahead and never, never look down. Looking down throws off your visual center of gravity and leads to an unexpected swim. When we think about innovation I would argue that the same rules apply. Most organizations that struggle with innovation spend the majority of their time looking down and not ahead. “Looking Down” in an enterprise context is generally called “Keeping the Lights On”; driving consistent operations on existing systems. The more time we spend “Keeping the Lights On” the less time, money and focus we have to drive innovation. Organizations that attempt to innovate without alleviating these operational burdens typically find their innovation projects are not successful or do not drive expected benefits. Advice – Be relentless in driving automation and abstraction across your existing IT services. This will free up time and resources to look ahead.
  2. Stay mentally focused; Don’t let your mind drift away – When we stand up on a paddle board for the first time it can be exhilarating! Typically we take our first few strokes and then start to look around. Before we know it we are thinking about the birds, the clouds, the wind and then splash; we’re wet! Many organizations today suffer from the same issues when it comes to innovation. Initially teams are very focused and aligned but with time distractions creep into the mix in the form of organizational changes or competitive vendors driving a wedge into the alignment and focus. Advice – Keep your teams focused on projects by driving visibility to “Project Outcomes” and a structured governance model to quickly solve and/or minimize distractions. I covered this off in detail in a past blog.
  3. Balance comes starts with core muscles; These are a pre-requisite – I can’t think of any better test of your core muscles than stepping on a paddle board. It’s these muscles that allow us to stay balanced by absorbing waves and keeping the rest of the body balanced. I was surprised at how sore my core muscles were the day after we paddle boarded; proof of how much they were engaged and working even though I thought most of the exertion was in my arms and legs. Innovation is very similar. Our lines of business are driving innovation projects but at times failing to engage their “core muscles” choosing instead to deliver these projects independently sometimes referred to as Shadow IT. These projects often get off the ground but hit major challenges when the first wave hits and they need to react. Advice – Innovation is an enterprise wide initiative. Gain support early from all executives that teams will work together to act as “one team”. Encourage quick remediation to any issues between teams. Discourage shadow-IT at all costs.
  4. Don’t shift your weight too dramatically; Keep both feet engaged at all times – Personally this was the most difficult part of learning to paddle board. You need to learn to move and adjust your feet without dramatically shifting your weight; any  weight shift sends you flying. Today, among enterprises striving to drive more innovation we see this as a balance between Mode 1 – Systems of Record and Mode 2 – Systems of Innovation. Organizations have to balance their strategy across both of these “legs” ensuring not to shift their weight too fast or too dramatically. I touch on this topic in more detail in a past blog entry. Advice – Keep your organizational innovation agenda balanced across traditional and modern applications and services recognizing that you will need both to meet the needs of your end consumer.
  5. Degree of Difficulty is directly dependant on where you choose to enter  – My advice to novice paddle boarders; find a calm and quiet beach where you can wade in and get your bearings and build your skills and confidence. Spend a few minutes to study your surroundings before you jump in attempting to avoid rough water, dock entries and other watercraft until you acquire your “Sea legs”.  In the world of innovation this equates to starting your innovation journey by tackling quick projects with limited complexity allowing for quick wins to build your teams confidence. Advice – Prioritize low complexity projects at the beginning of your journey and balance the projects you commit to deliver against the competency and experience of your team

Now let’s go have some fun; just remember your sunblock!

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