Monday, September 14, 2009

Strategy as surfing a wave: David Grossman’s moment of recognition at IBM

In a dialogue between UCLA’s Richard Rumelt and McKinsey’s Lowell Bryan, Bryan says – In this (uncertain) environment if you say “I see the future. I’m visionary, I’m going to make the future happen” then it’s a hallucination, not vision. To which Rumelt adds – Good strategy is more like surfing a wave than having this clear vision of the future. I like this metaphor of “surfing a wave” (I had also liked his "predatory leap" metaphor). However, before we see what “surfing” means, let’s step back and ask - how does “moment of recognition” of a wave look like? Let’s zoom into Cornell University’s campus at Ithaca, New York in February 1994 and see what David Grossman is up to. (Full story here).

David Grossman was a mid-level IBMer stationed at Cornell’s Theory Center using a supercomputer connected to early version of Internet. Grossman was one of the first people in the world to download Mosaic browser and experience the graphical world wide web. The Winter Olympics had just started at Lillehammer, Norway and IBM was its official technology sponsor, responsible for collecting and displaying all the results. Watching the games at home, Grossman saw the IBM logo on the bottom of his TV screen. But when he sat in front of his UNIX workstation and surfed the web, he got a totally different picture. A rogue Olympics web site, run by Sun Microsystems, was taking IBM’s raw feed and presenting it under the Sun banner. Grossman says, “If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought that the data was being provided by Sun. And IBM didn’t have a clue as to what was happening on the open Internet.” When he talked to a marketing executive part of Olympics campaign, Grossman got a feeling that one of them was living on the other planet. Grossman felt – Sun was about to eat Big Blue’s lunch. Grossman subsequently took a workstation with him and drove down to IBM headquarters four hours away at Armonk, New York to personally show the Internet to senior executives.

This story shows how sensing a wave happens. But not everybody present senses the wave – at least not with the same intensity. Around the same time Internet wave hit Grossman, I was only 125 miles away from Ithaca perhaps sitting in front of a Sun workstation in Computer Science Department at SUNY Buffalo. As a graduate student I used Mosaic to surf the web and find technical papers. However, I don’t recall any moment when I felt, “Man, this web will change the world”.

By combining Pasteur's first law of innovation with surfing metaphor, we can say: Waves favor prepared mind. Stay tuned for more surfing.


  1. That's a nice metaphor. Charles Darwin wrote “It’s not the strongest of the species who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change”

  2. I like this place! I love the idea and wish there was a place like this in Astoria, Queens. I am a surfer and found a "real surfer bar" in Point Break NYC. I am kinda jealous ;0PIts filled with surfers, people who like surfers, people who like the beach and people who don't want to live close to town. I really like this place. You know what they have these real Proctor and Channel One surfboards on the wall. It's nice for coming any day of the week and eating a late brunch. The food was outstanding. The brunch and sides were prefect and tasty. It is a perfect "escape" from city living. It is probably one of the only places where you can get a nice frozen pina colada or margarita. The service was on hit. They came up and checked on us so many times and made sure everything was up to par. It gets very active and the bartenders keep everybody having a good time. The bartender was very accommodating. He was nice enough to make a drink, that wasn't on the menu, for me :0) Did I mention the bartenders are nice eye candy. It was amazing to see their “das boot” which is shaped like a boot filled with beer. Don’t get me wrong, I am not drunk…it’s an actual boot shaped beer container ready to be emptied. Try it ..You will love it!! Oh. How can I forget, they even have a wheel o' shots where you just have to spin it and have to drink whatever shot it lands on!! Now call that bar creativity at its best!!! And when I spill a tray full of shots on myself, the bartender so kindly remakes them for me? Good music, too, and the decor helped us weather an otherwise overcast and rainy day. You know that old song "Brandy"? It goes, "Brandy, you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be. But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea." I believe Brandy works here. No reason, I just do. And that song happens to be a guilty pleasure of mine, so that's a plus in my book. You can simply waltz over to this colorful and warm establishment, enjoy some drinks with friends, and walk home. The bar is right at the center, so you can walk to either side for drinks, and the bartenders are friendly and at your service. There is a variety of seating, good music, and friendly neighborhood people to make your time more enjoyable. Not pretentious, very cozy, I think Point Break is a fabulous place to spend some time with friends.