Becoming a Surfer In the Business of Change / by Marc Shillum

The speed of technology is shifting markets and categories at an astounding speed. Is Pinterest in the commerce business? Is Facebook a virtual reality company? Is Google in the market of robotics or information?

When large organizations contemplate change, conventional brand consultancies sell a pretty standardized solution:

Conduct stakeholder interviews, undertake comprehensive research programs, then position the company to create greater differentiation in the market. In short, be sure of your direction and get political buy-in from the fragmented organization—then turn the ship slowly. And it seems to make sense: For a Fortune 500 company this kind of project could range between $2-3 million and take 3-5 months. But is it really worth the investment?

The most important question a company thinking about buying this kind of engagement from a consultancy is:

‘How dynamic is my market?’

The second most important question for a company considering change is:

‘What market am I really in?’

My friend Jonathan MacDonald, transformational strategist and founder of The Thought Expansion Network tells a wonderful story about a Chinese manufacturer of white goods called Haier. The story goes that a customer called in to the customer service team to complain about his washing machine—it was full of dirt, and no longer functioned. After much conversation the service team sent out an engineer. When the engineer arrived at the customer’s home he discovered the dirt was not from the clothes the farmer wore in the field, but from the field itself. The farmer had been using the washing machine to wash both his clothes and his potatoes.

Instead of educating the farmer, the wise engineer returned to headquarters to share the news. In 2009, Haier went on to upgrade its product to be able to wash clothes and potatoes which led Haier to become the number one provider of laundry equipment in the entire world.

It’s a nice story, and it appears to be true. So, would conventional stakeholder interviews identify a new market like this? Would regular positioning help a company discover an adjacent business which isn’t even in their market?

The truth is, change isn’t a slow deliberate process in which we can canvass everyone’s opinion, decide on a singular direction and move slowly. Change is shocking and unpredictable. It requires nimbleness, speed of action and response.

In my role at the transportation startup, Matternet, I’ve seen first-hand the speed of change of the drone market is even hard for us to keep up with and we set the pace.

Markets are fluid. And the days of building 10-year strategies are behind us. None of us have the magic crystal ball to see what will happen, so we must build change into the very soul of our organizations.

But, how? A 50,000-person company can’t turn on a dime.

When I face problems like these it usually helps me to think about other processes, practices, organisms or business which have found a solution.

Here’s one:

I’ve been interviewing surfers ever since I noticed a correlation between surfing and business in dynamic markets. Businesses are very used to building solid structures, protocols and processes which create value through repetition and scale. One might say these function rather like a track and field athlete. They learn to get better by finding ways to repeat actions, shave time, save energy, gain consistency. The running track stays the same, it’s continuous. But for a surfer, the track is always different. No wave is the same, the environment changes continuously. For a surfer to be successful they must be able to adapt to context in real time. The best surfers carry many boards, continuously monitor weather information and current flows and create two types of operational muscle.

“One minute you’re totally day-dreaming just rolling with the slight chop, then you see a set start to come in and a flip switches and you’re hyper sensitive to the wave” – Shane Brentham, Surfer, San Francisco

A surfer occupies two contrasting states of mind at once:

1. Calm, looking for patterns, continuously watching the horizon, counting waves. This is akin to watching the shifting market, contemplating its change, adjacencies considering new and next markets as much as close and clear.

2. The second mind state is the snap. Instantaneous decision-making, fearless awareness of the now, to walk the board and ride the wave creating instantaneous reaction to stimulae. This is akin to brand response or speed to market.

I talk to my clients about this all the time. Creating the two operational muscles is imperative to survival in dynamic markets. A runner wins by finding incremental gains on the unchanging static track but a surfer wins by continually adapting to the ever-changing dynamic environment.

Visionary companies like Nike created a response fund where employees are able to cut red tape and respond to market dynamics. Training your brand to get used to deploying smaller nimbler solutions quicker, making smaller bets, makes you more like the surfer.

In order to service our clients, we shouldn’t be offering standardized solutions based on the days of fixed markets. We should be running nimbler companies which are capable of responding to opportunity in the same way our clients must.

We can no longer sell the $2,000,000 research project which takes months, canvass the entire organization to take a step in any direction. We must create processes and build companies that are born on the more dynamic context that our clients exist. This motivated me to create my own company Chief Creative Office. With the mandate to create the most nimble branding agency possible.

Chief Creative Office is the surfer. It is our value proposition to turn months of work into weeks or days, take large budgets and amortize the spend across multiple projects, deploying different strategies, making little bets, from which our clients can learn and adapt.

We’ve spent the last two years defining a company and process which can help clients steer their brand at the speed of the market. Building on our thinking around ‘Brands as Patterns’ we’ve been able to help companies like Adobe, eBay, GoPro, Discovery find new ways of building brand, creating more coherence between what a company believes, the products it makes and the stories it tells. Together we’re building the beginning of brand systems which are organized to thrive in change.

Chief Creative Office is the surfer. Conventional branding companies have fixed overheads, staff, property and tools. So to be nimble we created a company without fixed staff, without fixed offices and without fixed infrastructure. We run a model based on the potential of our extended network. We employ experts, groups of individuals and small companies so we can tailor a team to the nature of the problem. This is not crowdsourcing, it is understanding the uniqueness of the problem and custom-designing an entire company to help create the solution. Our design frameworks were honed through combining and correlating the best thinking in Brand, Marketing, Experience Design, Interaction Design and Product Strategy and we have learnt to create brands at the speed of the market and to market at the speed of the product. We even create our office space within the dynamic market, creating an entirely new office for each engagement, making use of unused client buildings, spaces, research centers or helpful incubators. Like the surfer who chooses his beach depending on the swell, we prefer to believe that the context of the problem will inform the uniqueness of the solution.

So, if you’re on the receiving end of a $2,000,000 proposal, ask yourself, ‘do I trust the big branding agency who sent it?’ Are they set up to find the solution we need? Is their model from the past? Or are they more comfortable in a safer, less dynamic world? Are they the runner? Or the surfer?

Marc Shillum is the founder of Chief Creative Office, a design startup which is reimagining the relationship between creative leadership and design company. Chief Creative Office has ongoing relationships with organizations across the entire business spectrum. From Fortune 500 companies such as Discovery, Adobe, eBay and Lego to well to established Start-ups like GoPro, or series A and B startups like Canary, Transformair and Skreens.