Companies have long borrowed concepts and analogies from the sporting world to help drive performance. After all, business is inherently a competition against other players in the market. Most of these concepts center around successful teamwork and leadership attributes. For example, “putting the right players in the right positions” speaking to maximizing team performance through correct alignment of individual skill-sets.
Less often explored is whether there are more structural lessons for the organization. Endurance sport embodies the journey of meticulous planning and execution to reach challenging goals. When setting strategy and making organizational changes, companies would do well to remember the following four key lessons.
1 – Race to your strengths not your rival’s. The recently finished Tour de France is the marquee event in the world of road cycling. What viewers would have witnessed is that no one type of rider can dominate the whole race. Different attributes are required to compete effectively in the different stages. Climbers are ultra-lean and use their high power to weight ratio to gain advantage in the mountains. Sprinters cultivate their fast-twitch muscles to dash for the line on the final stretch of the flats. Classic riders look for false flat stages to give them the edge over both climbers and sprinters. Riders need to know when to sit-up and let their competitors battle it out, and when to attack go for the win.
Similarly, companies need to understand what their core strengths are and pick their battles. Too many times, companies try to emulate the successful strategies of their competitors, without realizing they don’t have what it takes to pull them off. At best, this approach wastes resources, at worst it causes a loss of focus on core products or services and can severely impact performance. Don’t let the competition dictate a strategy, know your strengths and play to them.
2 – Efficiency is everything, find and maintain an aerodynamic position. A key principle in endurance sport is that efficient technique enables tackling increasing distances at increasing speeds. What may not seem like a technique issue in a 5k sprint, can cause even the best athlete to fall apart during a marathon. Small inefficiencies add up. A deliberate focus on strong technique, as well as constant reassessment to avoid inefficiencies creeping in, will set the athlete up for success. A smooth pedal stroke, optimized riding position, and enhanced bike aerodynamics will let a rider lay down the power for longer before fatigue sets in.
Companies start lean and become less “aerodynamic” as the organization expands. Different business units and functions become increasingly complex and detached. Ask them why they do the things they do and the answer comes back “that’s just how things are done around here”. Many of these activities independently seem fine, but in the context of the overall business they cause ‘drag’. A structured process can help organizations identify areas of inefficiency and eliminate them. Every year, a business unit or function should ask two questions. Firstly, what is the universe of activities we are doing today? And secondly, are these activities critical to the success of the business? The answers will inform decisions to refocus resources and keep the organization efficient.
3 – Don’t just race on feel, what gets measured gets improved. An increasingly important component of any serious endurance athlete’s regime includes the tracking of key performance metrics, many in real-time: heart rate, power, cadence, LT threshold, VO2max. This allows the athlete to know where they are against their plan and make rapid adjustments. The data also provides objective post-race analytics that can inform future training. If an athlete’s pace is falling apart 20 miles into a marathon, a regimen of longer endurance work is in order.
Companies (and individual employees) can learn from this culture of measurement. Short and simple analyses can provide actionable insights, without the need for detailed data crunching. Metrics can be macro such as market share and weekly sales, or simple team based measures such as how long is spent in review meetings or for individuals how long they spend on emails. Teams should regularly meet to review their performance & productivity metrics and determine actions to be taken. The longer you neglect measuring, the harder it is to course correct.
4 – Seek to push the boundaries and be ready to hit the wall. Endurance Athletes need to ‘put it on the line’, when training and racing. All of them build-up a great understanding of their potential, yet there is always an element of uncertainty about their maximum effort in given conditions. There will be times where athletes will go too hard and ‘hit the wall’, resulting in failure. Such misjudgment can be detrimental for physical and mental wellbeing as well as have prize and sponsorship implications. Yet all the top athletes will almost welcome such experiences, rapidly assimilate lessons and ‘go again’.
This comfort with pushing new boundaries with the potential to fail is anathema to many organizations. Company culture tends to stigmatize failure and encourages employees to be risk-averse and manage the story of success versus shooting for real success. This is apt to result in numerous ‘second and third place finishes’. The key to challenging such a culture is to create environments where employees can rapidly test innovative ideas. Most of these tests will either fail or require significant alteration to the original idea. The new culture should be seen as an opportunity to filter ideas, learn lessons and ‘go again’.