Small Steps, Big Change
Incrementalism in high performance sport
We've seen incremental gains fostering world championship performance frequently over the past 15 years. Beginning with the England Rugby World Cup victory in 2003, going through to Team GB's cycling's performance after 2012. People tend to focus on data in sport as the game-changer but in reality it is the breakdown!
Clive Woodward, who coached the England World Cup winners, talked about Critical Non-Essentials. So interesting. He meant that many of the things that matter most to high performance are not what is traditionally the focal point of conventional high performance thinking or training.
It was not muscle mass, speed or the structural plays of the English side that won the Cup. Each of these is an essential and without them you are not a contender. However, the non-essentials were things like insisting that people be 10 minutes early for meetings to show respect for each other and changing shirts at half time to reset the mind for the game to come. But he also had a set of marginal gains that he aimed for outside of normal performance parameters - the development of rapid eye movement and practising decision making under pressure.
Those ideas were taken up by the British cycling squad that went on to take record hauls at the Rio Olympics. The cycling team aimed to do 100 things 1% better. That meant the team, embracing coshes and riders, went in search of all the marginal gains available to them, including not struggling to be competitive in non-Olympic events. Their focus was total.
Incremental at Scale
In delivery terms, the economy is shifting towards small. That includes the growing importance of small companies to large enterprises; the shift to small software packages in micro services architectures; the growth of micro-outsourcing; and of course enterprise ecosystems.
Business can emulate the techniques of sports elites only if leaders recognize that micro-packages of work are where the critical gains lie. That's why in FLOW work units are only ever 2 says long. These are the micro units where you can get the 1% gains to scale up into something significant.
There's more to it than that though. One technique that accompanies shorter cycle times is the practice of making all work more visible. Short cycle times equate to visible work. Visualization becomes a key, peer-management tool.
When teams are assigned tasks that occupy them for two to three weeks or more, the work itself disappears during that time. it becomes invisible and by its nature unmanaged. When those teams come back after three weeks they will have produced work that is incompatible with that of other teams. They can't possibly know the pivots and course corrections going on elsewhere.
When the cycle time of any task exceeds a couple of days people stretch it out further and bring it into their own personal domain. It goes from being part of the collective intelligence, where it can be improved, to a private project bound by personal assumptions that lack the wisdom of the group.
Accessing Pareto efficiency
Breaking work down into 2 day cycles means people have to interact more, which is also good for productivity and quality. It plays into the visualisation of work too. The only way that any project can be properly managed is if it is visible. And two day cycles keep work out in the open.
Shorter cycle times are good also because they allow teams to pivot. More than that they allow teams to get rid of project work quickly when it is irrelevant to customer value.
We argue that you stand a far better chance of getting to a new kind of Pareto Efficiency (the point where work is so optimised that any further changes reduce efficiency somewhere) with small steps.
Teams will optimally improve processes that they co-design to meet the needs of small tasks.
Teams struggle to co-design large projects and large processes. inevitably these are given over to people who specialize in planning. That private planning project is always unlikely to be greeted with an improving ethos among employees. They will execute. They may execute well or badly. But they are unlikely to improve the process.
In strategic terms we have used small steps to redesign platform strategy. How?
To understand the importance of small steps to platform strategy you have first of all to realise that many organisations have their platforms half-baked and underperforming. Given that most platforms are in some form or other an ordering platform, many firms under-cook what the platform can do.
It stays an ordering platform without growing an information layer or an advocacy function. One of the techniques we use to unblock thinking in platforms is the asset discovery process where participants:
a. Identify new customer segments
b. identify their own hidden assets - the ones that are relevant to those new segments
c. Identify an ecosystem that can delivery what you cannot
d. Learn how to redesign those assets or promote asset creativity in a way that is really appropriate for modern markets - using a Go To Market strategy that builds share-ability and advocacy into the product or service
By taking these steps you are creating projects that together make up a platform strategy, giving you a wider range of products and services for a long tail market, served by you and members of your ecosystem.
These components might sound like they imply big projects but they do not. They can be designed into chunks that last a day or so. They can bring results fast. More important they bring appropriate results because what you are actually doing is allowing people to co-create the most effective way of achieving the businesses goals: delivering incrementally more value to customers.