Winning the Podium in Inches!

Accountability Growth mindset Transformation


Key Point: It is important to understand how our business can be disrupted so we can become offensive rather than being on our “back foot” in the market place.  However, there is still much to be accomplished by focusing on all the “inches” of progress out there. It’s a parallel process: Look for inventive, even disruptive processes, while making continuous improvements everywhere.

I was interested in an Harvard Business Review article interviewing Sir David Brailsford, the successful, now legendary coach of British Cycling. Note the following from the HBR blog that outlines his thinking in more detail:

“When Sir Dave Brailsford became head of British Cycling in 2002, the team had almost no record of success: British cycling had only won a single gold medal in its 76-year history. That quickly changed under Sir Dave’s leadership. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his squad won seven out of 10 gold medals available in track cycling, and they matched the achievement at the London Olympics four years later. Sir Dave now leads Britain’s first ever professional cycling team, which has won three of the last four Tour de France events.

Sir Dave, a former professional cycler who holds an MBA, applied a theory of marginal gains to cycling — he gambled that if the team broke down everything they could think of that goes into competing on a bike, and then improved each element by 1%, they would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.”

Within the blog, Brailsford goes on to say: 

“We had three pillars to our approach, which we called ‘the podium principles.’ The first one was strategy. The second was human performance; we weren’t even thinking of cycling, but more about behavioral psychology and how to create an environment for optimum performance. The third principle was continuous improvement…

For strategy we analyzed the demand of each event and spent a lot of time trying to understand what it would take to win. So as just one example — what is the power needed off the line to get the start required to achieve a winning time, and how close is each athlete to being capable of generating that power? For this and other metrics, we looked at our best athletes and identified the gap between where they were and where they needed to be. And if it was a bridgeable gap we put a plan in place. But if it was not a bridgeable gap we had to be pretty ruthless — compassionate, but ruthless. Not all athletes are destined for the podium and we weren’t interested in fourth place.” 

Notice that Sir Brailsford approaches cycling performance as a complete system. To achieve great results, the British team focused on all three of the “podium principles.” It takes relentless attention and progress in all three principles to WIN!! 

Character Moves:

  1. Strategy: Understand in detail what it takes to win. This involves very rigorous data science application. Then be compassionate, fair, and decisive in determining “house cleaning” if you have “athletes” that just won’t get you there. If gaps in people performance are unlikely to close or take too long, leaders have a responsibility to act accordingly! Have the courage to respectfully move people out if they can’t help you WIN in the system. 
  1. Human Performance: Learn in detail what it takes for “‘athletes” who have all the desirable skills and attitude, to then flourish and thrive. Create an environment that does just that.
  1. Continuous improvement: Kaizen, every day continuous improvement, was introduced by Japan Inc., and is at least a 30 year old idea. However, think how much progress an organization could make if every single person improved the processes they were involved with by inches everyday. As the British cyclist leader notes, it’s all about winning by inches.

Winning by inches in the Triangle, 


One Millennial View: A cycling team is a perfect metaphor for standard job progression because of course it takes that “rigorous data science application” to succeed. (Which, btw, also might be why it’s historically the most “cheated” sport on the planet). I don’t think people often “cheat” in the work place, but it’s tough out there and sometimes folks don’t want to take all the steps! You’re not exactly throwing “Hail Mary’s” for wins. Success as a cyclist is measured through this simpler, but more difficult question: Are you fast enough or not? And frankly, I think most of us would like to live in a more “Hail Mary’s can win” world, where sometimes you can just wing it and get lucky. But real work is more annoying. It might be headache inducing to face the task of data analysis, meticulous but steady continuous improvement, and slowly winning by numbers. But we’re in the race already, so might as well pedal for the podium, and we likely know what type of efforts we need to get there. Like a big hill on a bike ride, it’ll burn, but it’ll be worth it. 

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis