Surf meets business: March

Project Rescue is one of Nine Feet Tall’s areas of expertise. Project failure is not uncommon in business and rescuing a project is not an easy job. As usual, we like to draw inspiration from surfing, and what more appropriate scenario for project rescue than a wipeout?

A wipeout is a surfer’s biggest nightmare, where the surfer falls off the board and is sucked in by the wave in a circular motion. The bigger the wave, the stronger the impact, as our sponsored favourite – Tom Butler – discovered all too recently at the World Surf League’s Nazaré challenge just before Christmas. Although unavoidable at times, there are certain techniques that can help reduce the impact of a wipeout, and it is important to master them when embarking upon riding a big wave or managing a big project.

No matter whether you are charging down a massive wave, or in charge of a big project, the principle is the same. Sometimes unforeseen obstacles appear; we lose control and before we know it we’re falling head first into deep dark waters.  It’s a terrifying experience and one that makes us doubt our abilities. Nevertheless, if approached the right way it becomes manageable. So, how do we approach a project wipeout?


The first thing that Tom does when he realises he will be wiped out, is to acknowledge it. This allows him to mentally prepare for what’s to come next and how to cope with it. In a project management context, this would mean acknowledging the situation, identifying the root cause and starting to think of the steps necessary to turn it around. The earlier you identify the issue, the easier it would be to turn it around.

Don’t crumble under the pressure

Of course, this is easier said than done. However, it is essential in order to be able to carefully think through each next step. Tom makes sure he remains calm and relaxed during the whirlwind. Once back on the surface, he catches his breath and allows his heart rate to return to normal. This allows him to recover quickly and be ready to take on another wave. Knowing your survival techniques during time of high pressure is crucial. Stress will most likely cloud your judgement and lead you to bad decisions, so make sure you find a way to de-stress and recharge before jumping right back in.

Re-evaluate the project plan, reflect on the mistakes made and set new goals.

Once he is back on his board or on the jet ski after a wipeout, Tom takes some time to recover and reflect on what went wrong. He does not rush to get straight back in, instead he takes the time to properly assess the situation and have clear understanding on how to approach the next wave.

Following Tom’s example, to get the project back on track, you need to break down the current project plan, facilitate a Lessons Learnt workshop and review the project goals. Based on these activities, then identify a new course of action and set new goals. Ensure stakeholders are kept informed at all stages and the new plan is clearly communicated to all team members.

As in surfing, in business projects sometimes come tumbling upon us with full force. We have the choice to go ‘turtle’ and hang for dear life, or jump in, away from the board and know exactly what steps to take next. Of course, not many surfers are comfortable with a 12 foot wave wipeout and these require an experienced big wave surfer to ride them.

Our Nine Feet Tall consultants are the professional big wave surfers of project management. They are experts in delivering complex projects and can help you get back on track after a project wipeout. To learn more, you can to download one of our little books or give us a call on 01225 904630.

For more big wave surfing experience, make sure to follow Tom’s journey on:

Twitter @Tombutlersurf

Instagram @Tommybutts

Youtube @Tombutlersurfing

Facebook @Tombutlersurf

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