Just that one man is empty
and done with listening to others; and another
finally found a way to speak, to say
all the things he wanted, dumb for years.
— James Sallis, ‘Nine Below Zero’
Throw me in a landfill
Don’t think about the consequences
Throw me in the dirt pit
Don’t think about the choices that you make
Throw me in the water
Don’t think about the splash I will create
— Daughter, ‘Landfill’
When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.
— Arthur Conan Doyle quoted in an 1896 edition of Scientific American
July 2013. Stage 9 of the Tour de France is under way. It is a challenging, mountainous stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, taking in a number of Pyrenéen cols. Chris Froome is already in the leader’s yellow jersey, and Team Sky’s role is to protect and consolidate his lead. Teammate Richie Porte is second on the general classification at the start of the day. But lurking behind them are a number of dangerous riders, including Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana from Movistar, Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam from Belkin Pro Cycling, and Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger from Saxo-Tinkoff. Team Sky, who put in a dominant mountain display the previous day on stage 8, are about to be seriously tested, prompting Froome at day’s end to observe that it has been one of the hardest days he has ever experienced on a bike.
Teams enter stage races with different goals. Some target overall victory, others solo or team time trials. Some are sprint specialists, while others are on the look out for opportunistic stage victories, putting riders into breakaways. Choices are determined by the composition of their teams, the route chosen by the race organisers, the weather conditions on certain days, the health of riders during the course of the race, and, naturally, race plans devised by the backroom team in collaboration with the cyclists. A well-documented example of the latter, covered in Rod Ellingworth’s book, Project Rainbow, is the extensive planning the British Cycling team put into the winning the Men’s UCI Road World Championships in Copenhagen in 2011. Stage 9 of the 2013 Tour was to see a different example of unconventional ideas getting beautifully executed by a team.
Dan Martin of Garmin Sharp lies in thirteen place on the general classification at the start of the day’s stage, some 2 minutes 48 seconds behind Froome. He has lost most of that time on the previous day’s stage as Froome and his Team Sky colleagues delivered a tour de force securing victory atop Ax 3 Domaines. Martin’s team has narrowly missed out on securing the leader’s yellow jersey on the opening stage of the Tour. They have also failed to achieve one of their pre-race objectives: winning the team time trial on stage 4. Their focus now shifts to a more disruptive, high-risk goal. Operating within a loose framework, informed by data analysis, but with decision-making delegated to the directeur sportif in the team car, as well as the riders on the road, they opt to do away with cycling tradition and attack the race as a collective.
This is a challenge to the status quo; change agency in action. As a team, in only the ninth stage of a 21-stage event, they are prepared to sacrifice riders and harm their chances of placing well in the overall race. Instead they adopt an all-or-nothing strategy, placing their trust in Martin, their designated leader and protected rider for the day. As the peloton climbs one col after another, the Garmin Sharp team attacks in waves, until Martin recognises an opportunity and launches an attack of his own. Even then, having traversed 169km and climbed five categorised cols, he will still need to beat Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) in a two-up sprint finish into Bagnères-de-Bigorre. By the end of the day Martin has raced into the top ten on the general classification. In the process, while not dislodging Froome from the race lead, Martin and his colleagues have exposed Team Sky’s vulnerabilities. Porte’s chances of finishing on the podium now lie in tatters.
Martin’s victory, though, is not so much the product of team tactics, as of a number of interdependent factors that favoured them on the day. Certainly team spirit and common purpose are both features, as are Martin’s own intuition, decision-making and athletic capability. But so too are the route chosen for the stage, the favourable weather conditions, the temporary dip in form of the Sky team, the concerted effort of other teams, especially Movistar, to take the race to Team Sky, and the early isolation of Froome himself. Serendipity and luck play their role too. These are not things you can plan for. Indeed, the racing aggression and risk taking displayed by Garmin Sharp and Movistar, in comparison with Team Sky’s more conservative approach on the day, illustrate the misguidedness of conventional planning. As Ian Sanders and David Sloly argue in Mash-up!, ‘Most plans are rubbish, written by people who are guessing the future based on what has happened in the past. The past is exactly that, the past; it has gone, and even though it has a habit of repeating it can’t be used as an absolute map for the future.’
Grand Tour bike races are great examples of the interconnectedness of multiple systems. That applies within the context of the race itself and the actions of the cyclists, as demonstrated by Martin and his fellow members of the peloton. More broadly, it also applies to the organisation of the races and their impact on the numerous communities that host the start and finish of each stage, as well as those that lie on the day’s route. This was really brought home to me yesterday as I stood by the roadside next to London’s Olympic Park as stage 3 of the 2014 edition of the Tour came to town. Everywhere was evidence of the Tour organisers’ collaboration with British counterparts. Different bodies had been mobilised, including Transport for London, the British police force and the French gendarmerie. Roads were closed. Crowds controlled. The media flitted in and out of the race on motorbikes or hovered above it in helicopters. The cyclists were preceded by the commercial excesses and blaring Euro pop of the Tour caravan, as well as by VIP vehicles, press cars and police outriders. Then in among the cyclists and bringing up the rear were race officials, team cars, cameramen. It was fluid, chaotic, agile and speedy. Elsewhere team coaches and other vehicles carrying support staff, chefs, soigneurs and mechanics were heading into central London. Yet other systems came into play too, not least the weather, which turned from sunshine to rain as the riders headed towards the finish line on the Mall.
Cycling history is littered with stories of the impact of inclement weather, notably, in recent memory, the snow-affected Milan-San Remo race of 2013. Then there is the rogue or simply vacant element in the roadside crowds, such as the tack droppers who attempted to sabotage the 2012 Tour and the selfie-photographers that lined the Yorkshire roads in 2014. There are also numerous tales of the role railway level crossings have played in proceedings, holding cyclists up as others, who managed to get over the crossings before the barriers came down, race away to victory. It is a sport that demonstrates that everything connects. A sport steeped in and interwoven with politics and media throughout its history, with both the Tour and the Giro d’Italia originally conceived to sell newspapers.
It is this very interconnectedness, this interplay of multiple systems, that reinforces my belief in the peloton formation as an apt metaphor for a modern, agile, adaptive and responsive organisation. One that has to operate under loose frameworks, tolerating risk, constrained by Government and regulatory policy, responding to shifting market conditions, seeking to evolve, transform, succeed, survive.
Well I think in a lot of organisations we actually create quite a muddy picture of the goals and priorities that we have got. I think in all organisations we can be much clearer about the strategy, what it is we are trying to achieve, to get buy in to that, to be absolutely sure about the roles and responsibilities that individuals play in reaching those goals. Unless people have a shared set of goals that they can identify with and they are getting constant feedback that they are moving towards those goals or moving away from those goals, then they are not going to achieve them. So I think we can all learn something from really discussing the goals amongst the stakeholders involved and really ensuring that there is some clarity.
— David Denyer, ‘Leadership Lessons from British Cycling’
Using vivid storytelling techniques, including themes, symbols, imagery, rituals, mantras and metaphor, and bringing them to life with imagination and flair, leaders create a sense of inclusion, connectedness and unity – a truly collective, collaborative mindset. It begins by asking Why? Why are we doing this? Why am I sacrificing myself for this project? What is the higher purpose?
— James Kerr, Legacy
Systems thinking bridges these two approaches by using both analysis and synthesis to create knowledge and understanding and integrating an ethical perspective. Analysis answers the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions while synthesis answers the ‘why’ and ‘what for’ questions. By combining analysis and synthesis, systems thinking creates a rich inquiring platform.
— Kathia C. Laszlo, ‘From Systems Thinking to Systems Being’