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Riding the Waves of Change: 4 Surf Lessons for Business Agility

June 25, 2024

In the ever-changing tides of business, agility is not just an advantage—it’s a necessity. As a business agility enablement specialist, I’ve discovered that lessons in adaptability can come from the most unexpected places. Today, I want to share a personal story that perfectly illustrates the principles of continuous improvement and agility, straight from the unpredictable waves of the ocean.

The Unexpected Classroom: A Stormy Sea

I arrived at my surf coaching session with high hopes, only to find Mother Nature had other plans. The waves were monstrous, the wind was howling, and the conditions were far from ideal. My initial reaction? Disappointment. The ocean wasn’t “cooperating” with my expectations (an absurd notion, I know).

But then, my surf coach Travis said something that changed my perspective:

“Look at the conditions right now, and then decide what is available to work on today.”

This simple yet profound statement struck me as a universal truth applicable to any aspect of life, especially in the realm of business agility.

Lesson 1: Work with What You Have

In business, just like in surfing, conditions are often beyond our control. Markets shift, customer needs evolve, and unforeseen challenges arise. The key is not to lament the lack of “perfect” conditions but to assess the current state and identify opportunities within it.

As agility enablers, we must help our teams and organizations recognize that even when circumstances seem unfavorable, there’s always room for growth and improvement. It’s about asking, “Given our current reality, what can we focus on to move forward?”

Lesson 2: Be Intentional in Your Practice

We decided that day to focus on intense paddling, building stamina in chaotic conditions, and, if possible, catching the “corners” of waves—the rare spots where they weren’t completely closing out. This meant honing our wave selection skills and positioning ourselves strategically.

In your agility journey, you can’t improve everything at once. Choose specific areas to work on based on what’s feasible in your current environment. Maybe implementation of Evidence-Based Management (EBM) across the organization isn’t possible right now, but you can focus on improving goal-setting conversations or enhancing your facilitation skills.

Lesson 3: Redefine Success

Was I successful that day? Not if success meant catching a lot of great waves. But absolutely, if success meant adapting to challenges, getting a great workout, and staying safe in difficult conditions.

In business agility, success isn’t always about achieving the ideal end-state immediately. It’s about making incremental progress, learning from experiences, and sometimes, changing the game plan entirely—like when I swapped my surfboard for fins to bodysurf instead.

Lesson 4: Influence the Influenceable

While the ocean’s conditions were beyond my influence, in business, we do have some ability to shape our environment. As leaders and change agents, we are always creating an impact, consciously or not. Hold onto your vision for agility, and also be mindful of how your day-to-day actions can gradually influence and improve the conditions around you.

Practical Application: Your Daily Agility Workout

To bring these lessons into your daily practice, I recommend a simple planning activity. Each day, ask yourself:

  1. What are the current conditions? (How might they differ from yesterday or last week?)
  2. What is available to work on today?
  3. How can I intentionally practice that?
  4. How might this practice better serve myself, others, and the larger system?

By consistently engaging with these questions, you’ll develop a habit of adaptability and intentional improvement—cornerstones of true business agility.

Conclusion: Embracing the Unpredictable

Just as every wave is different, every day brings new challenges and opportunities. By embracing what’s available to us, being intentional in our practice, and redefining success beyond rigid expectations, we can navigate even the stormiest seas of change.

Remember, in both surfing and business agility, it’s not about controlling the uncontrollable—it’s about improving our ability to respond, adapt, and thrive amidst uncertainty.

So, what waves will you choose to ride today?

P.S. If this story and it’s lessons resonate with you, check out Agile Leadership Surf Camp, a 1-week transformational leadership experience in paradise. Yep, that’s right. You don’t just have to read about this experience – you get to live it. We use learning to surf as a tool to deepen your embodiment of agility and strengthen your innate leadership capacity.

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