Surfboards for Organizations

July 23, 2012  

“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.”

I’m sure many of you will have come across this quotation before. For any unfamiliar, it is from Jon Kabat-Zinn, who having studied with Buddhist teachers and practiced yoga then went on to integrate their teachings with those of Western science. Kabat-Zinn and colleagues have studied how the brain processes emotions, particularly under stress, and the effects that practicing moment-to-moment awareness has on the brain as well as on the immune system. He is now one of numerous practitioners who teach mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness.

Organizations too have to cope with stress and pain – healthy ones can, are able to surf the waves and sustain their purpose. This is pretty important these days, as the waves just seem to get bigger and more relentless. Leaders need to create surfboards that will help to keep their organizations buoyant, whatever the conditions.

What does this mean in practice? Surfing is physically and mentally demanding; how do organizations ensure they are fit enough to ride the waves?

I should confess that I am no surfer. Even my attempts three years ago to boogie board with my family resulted in a broken collar bone and three fractured ribs. Clearly, as an individual, my agility was found sadly wanting. How might I ensure that, if I were an organization, I would be better equipped?

It seems to me that “organizational surfboards” must boast the following attributes.

  • Upper Body Strength: capture and process real-time information to identify new opportunities at the “speed of life”.
  • Mental Agility: the ability to rapidly translate insight into action (what we refer to as “dynamic detection”, which might be considered comparable to the state of “mindfulness”).
  • Flexibility: accept change when it is needed and make decisions at the pace required.
  • Core Strength and Balance: navigate changes in direction by actively maintaining alignment of people’s behavior to the values and beliefs that define the organization’s purpose.
  • Lower Body Strength: quickly reallocate resources in accordance with need, and equip people to deal with the new challenges ahead.

Undoubtedly many organizations are improving their health in respect to at least some of the above. High performance analytics is certainly playing a part in the real-time identification of opportunities and threats. A recent blog post by SAS ( highlights some interesting examples of what can be done (although the authorities in the US may well argue that HSBC could do a lot better at extending its fraud prevention capabilities to operations other than credit cards). Much has been written about values-driven organizations and we are certainly aware of organizations working on purpose and with purpose. In our experience what most often seems to be lacking is the “dynamic detection” – the attribute that connects the mental and physical reactions, that ensures the organization behaves holistically.

How do organizations ensure that they have this ability to rapidly convert insights into coherent actions? It seems unlikely that there is one solution – approaches such as distributed leadership, real-time analytics, crowdsourcing, etc – no doubt will all play some part. But how do organizations configure such techniques to create repeatable behavior tailored to their unique needs?

We’re working to find answers, which we’ll share in future posts. In the meantime we’d welcome any suggestions as to what represents the vital ingredient (or ingredients) of the organizational surfboard.

Ciarán Beary

Ciarán is a skilled facilitator and story-teller. Of our founders, he takes a keen interest in designing facilitative processes that work. His favorite quote is “Be all you can be”. Based in the UK, sometimes you can even find him there. More about Ciarán