Achieving your goals by breaking them down: it works across the field.. and on the track!

The other day I blogged about how I’d been impressed by the teamwork by the British team Sky in the Tour de France, and how it could be applied to business situations. This morning I watched a fantastic interview on BBC Breakfast with Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s Performance Director, where he was discussing the methods he’d used to help the British Olympic cycling team to their current success in London 2012.

The interview was focussing on recent reports and queries in the International press as to how the British team has managed to be so successful across the board with cycling, questioning if they are using special kit. Dave’s response could have been the response of Project Managers and Coaches in any field:

“We start by analysing the demands of the event we want to win. We then prioritise because we know we can’t win everything. Then we look at where we are today and see the gap between where we are and where we want to be and how we can get there… “

This could equally read as follows:

  • Identify the goal
  • Identify the requirements to meet that goal
  • Prioritise the requirements
  • List the tasks required to meet those requirements

Once you have this information you can plan and adjust your plans as required to keep you on track for meeting that goal, and most importantly keep your team motivated and keep monitoring performance to ensure you are on track. It’s a mantra I repeat almost daily in my work and an approach which has been used time and again to ensure success.

Dave Brailsford also made a great point about focussing on the little details to get what he referred to as ‘marginal gains’

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of an improved it by 1% and put it back together again you will get a significant increase.” …

“There’s fitness and conditioning but there are other things that might seem on the periphery like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are going away and training in different places, hygiene.” …

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them all together it makes a big difference.”

In the digital and technology world I have worked on projects where performance was critical to the success of the application. By ensuring each bit of code, each piece of the application is as efficient as it can be this helps to ensure that as a whole it works better. I’ve also worked on projects where time and a delivery date was a critical factor, by finding ways to deliver each individual element in the most efficient way, if you have 6 or 7 elements to a project and you manage to deliver each of them 1 hour quicker than expected then you have saved a day.

Dave Brailsford referred to himself as a conductor and the team of coaches and athletes as musicians :

“With the Olympics (as well), it’s been a big challenge but I’m an orchestra conductor, we’ve got fantastic cellists, violinists and drummers and we’ve got fantastic coaches.”

I love this analogy and again it works beautifully in terms of running projects: the Project Manager is the conductor and the team working on the project are all playing their part to make the music come together.

The reason that Team GB cyclists are doing well in the Olympics? In my opinion: The Olympics were their goal and they have been working as a team to deliver this goal rather than anything else. In fact most of the funding in the UK has been specifically Olympics driven. This is why some of the athletes didn’t necessarily perform that well over some of the events earlier in the year, those events were milestones on the way to a larger more important goal and it’s quite possible they didn’t want to peak too early.

One thing does strike me though, and it was a question which Dave Brailford himself wasn’t able to give a clear answer to this morning: How did they manage to be so successful in the Tour De France and the Olympics back to back in the same year? From what Dave said this morning winning the Tour this year wasn’t necessarily their primary goal, they had been targeting a win within 5 years, however it seems it is a rather nice piece of icing on the cake.. or in my terms a rather nice case of a project delivered early!

Pedalling the team message…

Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish racing for Team Sky in the 2012 Tour de France (ITV)
Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish racing for Team Sky in the 2012 Tour de France (ITV)

I’ve been following the Tour de France this year. In all honesty this is largely a defence mechanism as my husband & other half (OH to my twitter followers) is an ex racing cyclist and a huge fan. So with an air of ‘if you can’t beat them join them’ I have been reading online blogs, watching the highlights, reading the reports and trying to get my head around the ins and outs of the peculiar coloured lycra tops the commentators keep referring to! The key thing that has struck me more than anything else is how important Team Work is for the riders. To the uninitiated cycling can seem like quite a solitary sport, after all unless you’re on a tandem there is only one person pushing those wheels around; but the more I’ve watched The Tour this year the more I’ve realised what a shining example of being a team player these guys show.

Now, I apologise from this point onwards if I upset any Tour aficionados, as I’m sure I am about to hugely oversimplify concepts here, but it’s a great opportunity to show how you can match the team work principles from sport to the teamwork which makes businesses successful.

This year’s tour is being largely dominated by Team Sky. They have a clear goal: Bradley Wiggins to have the yellow jersey at the end of the race in Paris. They have a strong team full of cyclists with different strengths who are very capable of shining on their own, particularly if given a task which plays to their speciality strengths, however they all support and are working towards this team objective. To do this the team are cycling immediately in front of and behind Bradley, helping to ensure there is a clear route for the most efficient line, protecting him from the wind and other riders who may accidentally get caught up in a crash, and keeping up supplies of food and drink for the person they are trying to ensure finishes consistently closest to the front of the field. (for a great guide to the ins and outs of The Tour and correct Tour terminology I recommend this Telegraph article)

This year’s Tour De France has a long Time Trial on the second last day which it is widely thought that Bradley Wiggins will do very well in, and according to the pundits I am following it seems that if someone is to beat Bradley Wiggins then they need to get a significant time lead prior to this penultimate stage. The layout of the race has meant that with a strong team supporting Bradley they have been able to try and prevent a time lead occurring so far, and time is running out for their competitors. By recognising the strengths and weaknesses of the team they have been able to protect their leader so far and are continuing to work well towards their end goal.

The press has been making much fuss about Chris Froome being as strong, if not stronger, than Bradley Wiggins on certain stages this year, and as much fuss has been made in certain quarters about Mark Cavendish not being given a chance to show off his excellent sprinting skills this year. However interviews with Mark and Bradley and the team show that there is mutual respect of everybody’s skills and that the belief in the team goal has not changed. In a different event, a different year, or a different race the goal maybe different but in this race they all want one thing.

In many respects strong characters show themselves in every good team. If you look at a web development team then there will be people who are superb at database challenges, people who are great at front end user journeys, some who excel at making things look special and some who are good all rounders. In teams creating a marketing campaign there may be somebody who is good at ideas, somebody who is creative, and somebody who is good with figures and keeping things to budget. Often one of these jobs may appear ‘more important’ to the outsider who frequently only sees the front end or final product but in reality the end result would not exist if all the little bits were not there to support it.

In today’s press Bradley Wiggins has reiterated that he will work towards a team win whomever is the leader, and that leader should be chosen based on the strengths needed for the race.

Whatever the event, sport or business challenge, the key to a successful team is playing to the strengths of the team for each challenge and ensuring everybody understands and supports the end goal.

Allez Bradley!!!!!