BRAILSFORD

“There’s no ‘I’ in team is bullshit. We’re all ‘I’s”.

 

That was the advice given to me by Sir Dave Brailsford when I met him. We were chatting over coffee before a big conference, and I was thanking him for inspiring me when I was taken into hospital for a suspected stroke a few years ago. I don’t really have heroes. But Sir Dave is pretty close. If you don’t know him, Brailsford runs Team Sky Cycling, the team representing the UK in the Tour de France.

 

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If you’ve been watching any of Le Tour for the last two weeks, you will probably have noticed how they are doing a pretty good job of destroying their competition at the moment. Team Sky have had ridiculous success over the last few tours, winning 3 of the last 4 tours and (injury or crashes aside) are well on their way to winning a 4th this year with Chris Froome.

 

But it wasn’t always like this.

 

Brailsford was recruited to run Team Sky when it was formed in 2010, when he set the team the sole objective of winning 1 Tour de France in their first 5 years. The media was skeptical as the Brit’s hadn’t had much success in cycling previously. Before Sydney in 2000, Britain had won just 1 cycling medal in the previous 76 years at the Olympics. Since 2003 when Sir Dave took over as performance director of Team GB cycling, Britain has won 33 Olympics golds in cycling!

 

So what made all the difference?

 

Much has been made of Brailsford’s “marginal gains” philosophy, but when I asked him about it, he said that this philosophy often receives too much credit (but it does make a great story). The real reason was team unity. Not team spirit. Team unity.

 

 

Brailsford gave me an example of his first Tour de France in charge, where he was obsessed with the idea of marginal gains. He tinkered with tiny improvements, in the hope that they would make all the difference when they were combined. Golfers at this weekend’s Open Championship in Troon will be thinking about marginal gains, and how a tiny improvement over 270 holes of a championship could add up to a 2 shot lead. Formula one team managers operate under a similar philosophy, over the course of a 70 lap GP.

 

For Team Sky in 2010 though, all those marginal gains didn’t add up. They included everything from insisting that each rider traveled with their own pillow, to making sure that every hotel room was industrially cleaned before the riders arrived, to reduce allergens (especially under the bed!). They only slept in their own bedding. The team took over hotel kitchens and only served the athlete’s food prepared by the team chef. Diets were changed. Different socks were worn. And each rider spent hours in wind tunnels searching for the perfect riding position, making adjustments of no more than a couple of millimeters.

 

But the team lost.

 

Badly.

 

The first Team Sky rider, Thomas Lövkvist came in 16th, over 20 minutes behind the winner. In this instance marginal gains didn’t work, because the fundamentals were not in place. I checked my notes from after my chat and Brailsford’s exact words were,

“We focused too much on the peas and not enough on the steak”.

After the loss, he said somewhat philosophically that marginal gains may not help you win the Tour de France, but they will help to make sure that you don’t lose it.

 

In that first tour in charge, the overall performance of the Team Sky cyclists just wasn’t up to scratch. Brailsford promised himself that he wasn’t going to make that mistake again. So he started to keep a “reflective journal”, chronicling the details of each rider’s personal preferences and individual performances. He would write in it each day and regularly reflect upon what he wrote. He promised to remain obsessed to improving the performance of each cyclist, but without losing track of what mattered most. A yellow jersey. (All of this, of course, is as relevant to business as it is to professional sports. It’s a bit like focusing on PokemonGO, Periscope or Snapchat when your customer service sucks).

 

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Most coaches at this point would look at team synergy. They would talk about “esprit de corps” and probably reference teams like Iceland, Wales and Leicester City. Teams that didn’t rely upon individual moments of brilliance but instead gelled together to beat far superior teams. Many coaches (and business leaders) insist that a successful team is a happy team who all get on well together, on and off the field of play.

 

Sir Dave Brailsford didn’t agree.

 

In a team with many ego’s (as he had with Brad Wiggins in 2012), he decided that team happiness didn’t matter. It was too hard to control and too difficult to manage. Claudio Ranieri might take the whole squad out for pizza as a special treat, but Sir Dave explained to me that managerial attitudes like that are for outliers (as Ranieri was). For the most teams, you have to deal with lots of egos, all fighting against each other for playing time, media exposure, sponsorship deals and financial contracts that reflect their status. (Euro 2016 winners Portugal?).

 

This was why Brailsford told me,

“There’s no ‘I’ in team is bullshit. We’re ALL ‘I’s”… I don’t care if team members get on with each other. I don’t care if they’re friends. But what I do care about is that they are all single-mindedly focuses on the same objective… Goal harmony is far more important than team harmony. We obsess far too much about team harmony and the ‘perfect environment’, but many of the best teams have conflicts and are troubled internally”.

 

For Team Sky, that was winning the tour. For Team GB it was winning Olympics medals.

 

It’s good advice and an interesting perspective. We talk a lot in business about creating a positive culture, harmony and team happiness, but perhaps we should focus more on making sure that everyone is united behind the same purpose. At some level, everyone has their own personal agenda, and opinions about the team. Who cares what your best performers think about off the pitch, if they are both 100% committed to the cause when they are on the pitch?

 

Managing ego’s, workplace diva’s and internal squabbles sucks the life out of even the best managers. But if the right strategy is in place and everyone understands the role that they need to play in delivering that strategy, then none of that other stuff really matters.

 

Except when it does…

 

 

Evangelist @IBM • IBM Watson • Travel Around Talking about AI, Big Data and the Future of Marketing • Lover of Old Business Books and Good Bourbon • Based in London, UK.

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