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Thanks to a colleague for pointing me to a remarkable post by John Hagel entitled Innovating on the Edge of Big Waves.   Hagel explores the evolution of ‘big wave’ surfing – both from a perspective of the technology innovations (e.g., fibreglass, foam core, changeable stabilizing fins) and techniques (e.g., tow-in surfing, insights borrowed from wind surfing, skateboarding).  He then examines the lessons that can be applied by business executives.  For those of us that don’t have first hand experience with big wave surfing, the history and achievements of this sport are very interesting.  More importantly, the analogy to, and lessons for business executives are very insightful.

I think these lessons are especially intriguing for IT executives, and both match and expand upon some of the issues we’ve explored here, and in our Reaching Level 3 mutli-company research.   With acknowledgments to Hagel, here are some of the lessons I see for IT executives.

  1. Find the ‘edge’ that pushes performance boundaries.  Most IT organizations have become bogged down managing the ‘core’ IT systems and capabilities.  This core, managing and running the firm’s infrastructure and foundation systems consumes much of the IT budget and most of the IT management bandwidth – and yet it delivers relatively little in the way of new business value.  You can’t take your eye off the ‘core’ but you have to find ways to be watching, stimulating and working with the ‘edge’ – this is where the big opportunities lurk.  Somewhere in your ecosystem – in your business units, customers, suppliers, and so on, there are ‘edge’ needs and ideas being surfaced and explored.  Are you ‘catching these waves’?
  2. The ones who achieve the breakthroughs are ‘risk takers.’  While you typically can’t take risks with your ‘core’ systems, you have to with your ‘edge’ opportunities.  And yet, you have grown a culture of “prevent bad change.”  While not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, you now need to foster a culture of “create good change.”  I’ve mentioned before that onerous, rigorous Net Present Value-based business cases are good at screening out low value IT opportunities, but if you are not careful with them, they will also screen out potentially high value, but risky opportunities.  Rather than the onerous business case (or at least as a supplement to it) you need to develop competencies and capabilities in business experimentation, analytics and rapid, iterative development.
  3. Appropriate insights from adjacent disciplines.  Are you tracking adjacent disciplines?  Do you know how the disciplines of marketing, and especially advertising are evolving in the Web 2.0 world, and how this impacts IT opportunities?  Do you understand the state of the art in ‘design thinking’, or ‘customer experience design’ or ‘IT enabled innovation’?  What other adjacent disciplines might be applicable sources of insight in your ecosystem?
  4. Bring users and developers closer together.  We’ve discussed this whole idea of business-IT ‘confluence’ before – I truly believe it’s the ‘big idea’ behind business-IT maturity and Reaching Level 3.  It’s also the essence of ‘agile development’, ‘extreme programming’, ‘rapid interactive prototyping’ and many of the development methodology improvements and innovations of the last 10 years or so.
  5. Foster and understand ‘loose practice networks’ of edge practitioners.  This follows the Appreciative Inquiry school of organizational development.  Or as science fiction writer William Gibson said, “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”  In other words, somewhere in your ecosystem, someone has tried/is trying something innovative – can you find it, and make it more common practice?