For the first time in my life, I had the pleasure of getting to “pace” my uncle as he ran an endurance race. And when I say “endurance”, I mean 50-miles, on foot, in under 12 hours. My role was to pace him for the last third of the event. It was a powerful experience, and led to many reflections. I want to share the business reflections with you. For those continuing from the web magazine, you can continue reading below.
This spring, Indiana got a phenomenal amount of rain in the weak leading up to the Indiana Trail 100. The rain led to flooding on many parts of the course. Despite detours to try to avoid some of the unexpected water, there was plenty of mud, standing water and running streams that the athletes had to go through. At one river crossing, there was a rope that the racers had to use lower themselves down the steep embankment, into the icy water, and then pull themselves up the embankment on the opposite site. The trail conditions, combined with temperatures barely above freezing, and you have an extreme, potentially deadly, set of race conditions. Below are some of the lessons from my 16 mile run.
Choose a Sustainable Pace
In racing, as in business, you need to maintain a sustainable pace. It doesn’t do us any good to go so fast that you can’t complete what you started out to do. Prioritization and deciding what not to do will help you find this pace.
Take Little Breaks
There were several aid stations set up along the trail. Aid stations allow the athletes to pause, get something to eat and drink, adjust their shoes, and then start out again. These stations are important breaks in an otherwise daunting journey. From a utilization standpoint, they’re “inefficient,” wasting time that could be spent running. Consider what it would be like without aid stations. Without the break, runners wouldn’t be able to complete the course. Make sure your business team has opportunities to rest and refuel, even if it appears inefficient.
Walk Up the Hills
When faced with a challenge, how tempting is it to charge through? Charging uphill wastes a lot of energy and does not improve your results. In fact, the wasted energy may prevent you from finishing. Are you facing an uphill climb at your business? Consider slowing the pace to get through it.
Iterating Makes it Safe
The morning of the race, I wasn’t confident that I was in shape to run a full 16 miles. However, looking at the course, there were multiple opportunities where the trail crossed a road, providing an opportunity for me to easily get back to the race start/finish line. These opportunities were about every four miles of trail. Knowing that I had a way out, I was able to incrementally decide if I was able to continue on the race. I was not making a 16 mile commitment, I was making a series of 4-mile commitments.
Embracing practices that allow you to deliver incrementally and iterate as you learn create competitive business advantages. Look for those opportunities to make a series of small steps, and do not make the false premise that you have to make one big bet that will either succeed or fail.
I’m about four inches taller and a little wider than my uncle. I spent much of the pace lap either running beside or behind him. At one point, probably 13 miles into my lap, and 47 miles along his total run, he was tired. The path narrowed, and I took the lead position, running in front of him. Shortly after that, I began to offer insights about the trail. One of my comments went something like “There’s a hill. Want to walk up?” His reply was “I just need to see the trail.” That was my queue to get back behind him.
In business, how many times have you seen a manager try to provide some direction to the team. The manager is well meaning, attempting to help the team along the path. I fell into that trap. I got in front, instead of simply providing support and allowing him to see the path that was coming and make adjustments to his style from there. For your teams, strive to provide support. When they know the goal and can see the path, the team will benefit most when you lead from behind.
Check Your Vitals
Is your project healthy? How do you know? One of the athletes I was around stopped into an aid station where his vital signs were checked. The result? His body temperature was down two degrees. The race had taken its toll and it was no longer safe to continue. He withdrew, but will be able to make another attempt at the full distance in the future.
As projects progress from their inception to completion, there can come a time when warning signs emerge. Too often companies try to just proceed as planned, resulting in an experience that may have long-term negative impact on the employees, company financials, and company reputation. Some the proper course of action is to withdraw the project and move on. Don’t turn your projects into a “death march.”
With endurance events, whether business or sport, there are important lessons to be learned. The three that stand out most to me are: find a sustainable pace, iterate, and make sure you stay healthy. I hope you take a moment to share your comments on the ideas above.