Oceans into skateparks: What I've learnt about change in complex environments through surfing and skateboarding

The Covid-19 pandemic gave me the chance to pick up a hobby that I’d let die off a couple of years ago. I simply couldn’t make it work with my work life structure at the time. Which is a fancy way of saying that I had other priorities. By chance a friend moved back into town that had picked up surfing, he convinced me to pick it back up.
11 October 2022
Michiel van Gerven
  • Agile leadership
  • Agile transformation
Organisatie als skatepark

Surfing is probably one of the most frustrating sports in the world to learn. There is a great number of skills required to get you properly out of the beginner phase, a phase that for most people takes years. This has much to do with the nature of surfing, but it is especially inherent to the terrain – that is the sea. Apart from strength and stamina there are mechanical skills to be learnt but the biggest challenge in surfing is to better understand the environment you are operating in and how to use it effectively. The surf is a complex environment in which you not only have to deal with the dynamics of the ocean itself but also with other surfers (one surfer to a wave), etiquette, unspoken rules and practices, other watercraft, and managing your own expectations and fears.

In other words, you need to know a lot, and be able to do even more, before you are even remotely competent at surfing. So how to learn these things? Well, by surfing. This is a problem, as it gives you only so much time to actively learn. It is not uncommon for beginner surfers to only ride a wave for mere seconds (if at all), in a surfing session that might be a few hours long.

What can the process of learning to surf teach us?

These difficulties bear a striking resemblance to learning to operate in a complex environment as an organization. It’s all pretty overwhelming. Half the time you might not even see or understand what’s going on. There are definitely dangers and competitors out there and mistakes can have real consequences. You are probably using the wrong tools and everybody is recommending different things. Clearly learning rapidly is absolutely critical, but you are not sure how to even get started and the learning process itself is harsh. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could learn how to operate in a safer environment? As it turns out, you can. It’s called skateboarding.

While that might seem strange at first glance – most people like their bones where they are – there are some key differences between surfing and skateboarding that make skateboarding much easier to learn. I have experienced these lessons carry over into surfing, but also into the way we work. 


Michiel van Gerven skateboarden

How to change oceans into skateparks?

So how can we change the ocean into a skatepark? How can we change an organization, and maybe its context to make a complex environment into a more predictable place of learning? Answer: we need to create pockets of learning in our organizations; safe spaces in which you feel challenged yet confident enough to learn new behaviors and skills. Not just in a physical or facility way, but also psychologically. Just like any good skate park not only consists of a bunch of halfpipes, rails and ramps. It’s a vivid, socially safe environment due to its users. I believe good skateparks and great learning spaces in organizations are characterized by five elements:

  1. Short feedback loops
  2. Risk by choice
  3. Learn at your own pace
  4. Repeatability and variation
  5. Culture of learning and striving

I will explore these elements one by one. And asked Marleen Groeneveld, Agile Coach at Takeda Netherlands, how Takeda uses safe spaces to aid their transition into a more agile organization.


Marleen Groeneveld TakedaMarleen: “I like this analogy. I often feel like Takeda’s halfpipe, or rather its custodian. Colleagues come knocking to practice and improve their agile skills. I provide them with the facilities. I make room for them, often literally, and I provide tools to visualize their work. But I also offer coaching and mental support in learning how to fall. For example, if a retrospective doesn’t work out, I help the scrum master to investigate what it takes to get more out of it.

Importantly, I am also a gatekeeper and safety officer. Are the teams here for sincere reasons to try agile ways of working? Are product owners and team members fully committed? Just like in a real skate park, you don’t hang out here for just a cool image. Are they actively working on creating the safe situation required for experimentation and developing their deliverables based on feedback? Ultimately this is their own responsibility. I can help in creating a safe environment, but I can’t make them wear their helmets.”


1. Short feedback loops

The body remembers and learns. Skateboarding provides you with extremely direct feedback. Get it wrong, and you are likely to find yourself on the ground. Falling hurts, but this is a good thing. Because the feedback loop is so short you can learn what works and what doesn’t, at a highly accelerated pace. Now compare this to surfing, get it wrong and you will usually find yourself in the water next to your board. It might actually hurt less in the short run, but that also lengthens your feedback loop. In learning organizations it’s the same.


Marleen: ‘Increasingly we’re finding that teams are spontaneously willing to try new concepts or proposals in very highly focused sessions we call pressure cookers. These are aimed at building and testing products in very short cycles. Typically such a pressure cooker will consist of four sprints in two days, with direct feedback from real stakeholders after every sprint. These sessions are excellent for kickstarting a larger project and help make the decision whether something is viable in a very short timeframe.”


2. Risk by choice

Skateparks are safe spaces. No, really! Granted, you might fall, and it might even seriously hurt, but you won’t get yourself into any trouble if you do not consciously assume the risk of being in that position. You are able  to manage the level of risk you are willing to take, by choosing where to skate and which sections of the park you will ignore (for now). This allows you to build confidence and push yourself where you might feel uncomfortable but the risks you are assuming are acceptable.


Marleen: “It’s about consciously considering between trying not to take risks or trying to do something totally different. For example, one of our first pilot, or ‘skateboard’ projects we decided to work on, was a project that had been struggling for quite some time with a very traditional workflow. This basically meant that although this was a real project there was very little risk of taking a big fall. Even if it failed totally we wouldn’t have been any worse off. Working on this project allowed us to add value for our customers and the organization while at the same time practicing a new way of working at a very low real risk. The project was a success, and this gave us the confidence to start using this new way of working in ever more areas.”


3. Learn at your own pace

This element of risk by choice has another important benefit that deserves to be mentioned separately: a skate park allows you to learn at your own pace. In the surf, or in the complex ecosystem of your organization, the required pace of learning may be forced upon you  by rapidly changing situations (adapt or die!). Adapting to these constant waves of change is a true art. Agility is key. But having a basic understanding of functional (meta)patterns and effective behaviors in such an environment makes you much more resilient. A skatepark allows you to learn these movement patterns and behaviors at your own pace. Sharp twists or slow curves, steep walls or more undulating terrain; you choose when and how often you want to practice a particular obstacle, whereas the outside world or the ocean makes the choice for you.


4. Repeatability and variation

Skating allows for lots of repetition, whereas surfing does not. But interestingly many of the fundamental movements are the same. Meaning that while skating in a skatepark or bowl, you can try a maneuver however many times you want until you get it right, and crucially, then repeat it until it becomes second nature, and you no longer have to consciously think about it. This newly ingrained pattern of behavior will then also serve you well in the water. This frees up space in your mind, which leaves you more time to adapt to specific conditions and pick your right lines, rather than having to focus on changing your habits while you are in this constantly evolving environment.

The same situation that allows repeatability also allows for variation. Because the environment is unchanging we can try new approaches to the same situation to see if they yield better results. Trying new approaches is relatively risk free, as the opportunity (to surf a wave) will not pass you by. You can reset and try again, over and over again.


Marleen: “Practicing requires discipline and focus. That applies in sports, it applies in learning to organize in an agile way. On the one hand it is nice to be able to learn in your own way. On the other hand it can really help to rely on someone who pushes and challenges you to go just that bit quicker, further, or take a different approach.

For example, we had an urgent project that was absolutely ideal to tackle using Scrum. It was completely obvious, yet somehow we were unable to align everyone’s calendar. There were endless discussions about time commitments and the estimated number of sprints required to deliver the product. Until Michiel remarked: why are we talking about continuity during next months? What if we simply cleared everyone’s schedule for just one, full week? Quite frankly we were astounded that we hadn’t been able to come up with that ourselves. We were too ingrained even in our new, normal way of thinking. In such times it can really help to have an outside pair of eyes.”


5. Culture of learning and striving

None of the things above would be possible without a culture that supports this, and quite frankly skateboarding is one of the healthiest cultures I have ever encountered.

There is something different about skateboarding compared to other board sports. While there are certainly better and worse skateboarders out there, the skateboarding community appears to be quite happy to include people from all levels. As it turns out, being good at skateboarding is not what necessarily makes you a skateboarder. Rather it is the striving. The willingness to try a new trick. Possibly take a big fall and then try again. In skateboarding taking a fall gets you respect. Spectators admire your efforts, practitioners have even more respect. After all, they have been through it themselves and know the true price of learning and bear the scars with pride.

This is exactly the kind of culture that allows you, and organizations, to embrace complexity.


Marleen: “I have noticed our culture is changing. Learning, falling down and getting back up again is becoming much more commonplace. I often overhear colleagues that say ‘this bit of work is too large, let’s cut it up into smaller pieces and experiment’. Or they admit that they have been blindly proceeding based on their own assumptions: ‘I thought I knew what our customer wants but now that I’ve directly involved them, I’m experiencing otherwise’. We are clearly getting better at taking these -mental- hurdles every day. And that’s cool!”


Ingrain new muscle memory and patterns of behavior

In skateboarding falling gets you credits. Striving is cool. But for many organizations not falling is the norm. They believe that they are held accountable for this by the market, as an organization and individually. Strange, because that very same environment, the market, the business landscape itself is as complex, changeable and unpredictable as an ocean. Learning in a skate park allows you to learn new patterns and ingrain them so they become second nature. So much so that they become second nature, you no longer have to consciously think about them and you can focus on the important things. What is the wave doing? What does my business landscape look like and what is the move I should be making?

Michiel van Gerven

Transformation Lead