The three Cs

Cooperation is the foundation of human development, in that we learn how to be together before we learn how to stand apart.
— Richard Sennett, Together

Specialization and cooperative exchange are revealed as the routes of self-interest.
— Mark Pagel, Wired for Culture

For creative advancement, change is essential. And while all creative exchange will have a cooperative element, competition on the whole takes a slight edge. This may seem counterintuitive, since we generally yearn for order, unity, and connection. But progress depends on disorder and fluidity. Sometimes the best aids to our work are people who knock us most off balance.
— Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two

Last week, an opinion piece by Geoffrey James was published in Inc. James argues that ‘collaboration creates mediocrity’. Attention-grabbing headline aside, his article focuses on the effects of workplace environment and unstable personal relationships. It is informed too by the tendency to pigeonhole and classify.

No workplace, no relationship, is entirely collaborative. Our interactions and experience of the world are more nuanced than that. Rather, there tends to be a continuum ranging from competition through cooperation and on to collaboration that reflects constant contextual shifts in what we do alone and together. The Inc. article points to workplace distrust, choosing to frame it in terms of the bubbling resentment of the mediocre rather than positive competition that can help everyone improve.

Movement from competition to collaboration or cooperation usually reflects varying levels of trust. The more collaborative the endeavour, the higher the level of trust. Collaboration is about common purpose and shared goals, whereas cooperation is about unions of temporary convenience which can be mutually beneficial during the pursuit of different objectives. Competition is both divergent and convergent in that it involves different groups pursuing the same thing in different ways. Such competing groups are inherently distrustful of one another.


Truly collaborative organisations can be quite fluid, with ever-shifting responsibilities, as individuals both lead and follow, adapting flexibly to changing needs, sometimes guiding, sometimes being guided. Collaboration by default entails learning and development, so mediocrity should be quickly addressed either through personal development or ejection. If mediocrity is retained, then collaboration is probably not what is happening. A label misapplied. This, at core, is the issue I have with James’s argument.

I am currently working on a book with Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg about Nordic leadership. What has become apparent from our many conversations and the numerous interviews they have conducted are the societal differences regarding trust and, by extension, collaboration.

In most Nordic countries, trust is implicit. It is baked into social interactions, evident from an early age in the education system and the encouragement of collaborative projects. In Anglophone countries like the UK and the US, on the other hand, greater emphasis is placed on competition. Trust has to be earned in these countries. Distrust is the norm, particularly distrust of ‘the institution’ as embodied by corporate and political leaders. Just witness the reaction this week to Theresa May’s reasons for calling a general election.

In a country like Denmark, it is perfectly acceptable to leave a sleeping child in a pram on the street outside a café. But in the US, such action can lead to prosecution for neglect and the child being put into the care system. In the Nordics, implicit trust establishes an expectation that others will do the right thing. Elsewhere, where distrust is endemic, everyone is suspect. These worldviews inevitably shape different cultural approaches to and perception of collaboration and cooperation.

Writing about the peloton over the past few years has helped clarify my own thinking about competition, collaboration and cooperation. The nuances are neatly reflected in the activities that take place in the breakaway. This usually forms early in a road race, with a group of cyclists from different teams pulling away from the main peloton.

Members of the breakaway will temporarily put aside competition with one another and between their respective teams to work together. Their first objective is to stay away from the peloton, building a substantial time gap. Each member of the breakaway will have different personal objectives. Some will be working towards a stage win, others will be working on behalf of another team member behind them. Others still are simply seeking several hours of television exposure for their team’s sponsor. Cooperation is an arrangement of mutual benefit, which will once again give way to competition as the finish line nears.

Sport is a rich source of examples from the competition–collaboration–cooperation continuum. Another comes from yesterday’s announcement of the British and Irish Lions rugby union squad, which will tour New Zealand in June and July. The squad is comprised of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These are themselves representative teams, and in Ireland’s case is one which bridges the national borders between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, playing all its home games in Dublin.

The players in the Lions squad, therefore, already participate in an array of allegiances and relationships that will be further complicated. Some play together at club level but compete with one another internationally. All have to put aside intense club rivalries when they represent their countries, and now will have to overcome national differences in pulling on the Lions’ red jersey. Each will be competing with several others for a place in the starting line-up, or at least a role in the test squad. Yet, despite all this, they will need to cohere as a group, collaborating with one another, pursuing a common purpose.

Valdis Krebs often encourages people to ‘connect on your similarities and benefit from your differences’. This is the glue of a collaborative endeavour like the Lions, that will nevertheless feature elements of competition and cooperation too. Humility and servant leadership are essential, trust is everything, and those who lead must also learn to follow. This is neatly symbolised by the award of the captaincy to Sam Warburton for the Lions tour. His Welsh national captain, Alan Wyn Jones, will have to follow his lead, as will Rory Best the Irish skipper, working with others to form a supportive leadership group.

Collaboration is about collective strength, implicit trust, common goals and constant learning. It is about the relationships not the physical or digital spaces that enable them.

An aspect of open collaboration literacy which may seem counter intuitive is that of competition.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

The connected workplace requires collaboration as well as cooperation. Both collaborative behaviours (working together for a common goal) and cooperative behaviours (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) are needed, but most organizations today focus their efforts on shorter term collaboration. However, networks really thrive on cooperation, where people share without any direct benefit. Modelling cooperation is another important leadership skill in the connected workplace.
— Harold Jarche, Adapting to Perpetual Beta

Today, open sharing and collaboration are proving better long-term corporate strategies than sequestering research and development. Hiding one’s secret formulas suggests to the public—and to investors—that the company is depending on the innovations of the past and fears it won’t continue to develop new ideas into the future. Its best days are behind it, and now all the company can do is play defense. In contrast, the confidently innovating company shares its developments in the hope of incorporating the insights of others.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Addendum: Why triangles? It is the loose shape often formed by a peloton during a road race. I think of it as something fluid rather than a rigid structure.

Ready to jump

This article was commissioned by Haydn Shaughnessy and published on the Hack & Craft News site on 2 November 2016. The challenge was to explore what happens when people take advantage of opportunities. My thanks to Haydn for permission to reproduce it here. The article forms part of my ongoing research into peloton formations. This is a metaphor for responsive, adaptive organisations, characterised by fluid leadership, agility and personal autonomy in service of the collective.

Treating an uncertain world as if it is predictable is for charlatans. Long-term planning is just a waste of resources and brain power. The surest route to castrophic failure is not to act and not to take any risks.
— James Watt, Business for Punks

Distributed doesn’t simply mean decentralized; it’s not the principle through which alternative power centers emerge on the periphery of a system. Rather, when power is distributed, it is available thought the network. It is everywhere at once.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

Centralisation is mainly an idea of order; decentralisation, one of freedom.
— E. F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful

Sunday 11 September 2016. A diminutive professional road cyclist, Nairo Quintana, takes his place on the top step of the podium in the centre of Madrid. He has just secured overall victory in a Grand Tour race for the second time in his career. But things could have turned out so differently were it not for the spirit of adventure that Quintana and his teammates had demonstrated the previous Sunday…

Peloton formations
For all the focus on the individual, winning unique stages, overall races, classification jerseys and intermediate sprints, road racing is in fact a team event. It is played out against a backdrop of numerous interacting systems – competing teams, event organisation, municipal authorities for the host towns, policing, media embedded within the race, team cars, support vehicles, spectators on the roadside, weather, terrain, course routes and road furniture. The passage of the cycling peloton itself – that swarming mass of lycra-clad teammates and competitors – is complex and adaptive. The peloton formation, in its responsiveness and fluidity, serves as a useful metaphor for an aspirational modern organisation.

The peloton is characterised by constant shifts between competition, collaboration and cooperation. Leadership is always in motion rather than remaining static, a baton that is passed off and handed back again, determined by day-to-day and overall objectives for the team. Leaders become followers, servants become leaders, as the road flattens or climbs, as the wind strengthens or tarmac gives way to cobblestones. Emphasis is placed on time-bound actions and relationships; forming or chasing down a breakaway, setting up a sprint finish, helping a teammate make their way back to the main group after a mechanical failure.

Alliances of mutual convenience take shape and then shatter as competitors accommodate contextual shifts. Teams operate within loose frameworks, exercising personal and collective autonomy, as they amend their plans. Decisions are made on the fly, in recognition of changes in weather, incidents on the road, the health and form of colleagues, as well as in response to the actions of riders from other teams. The roles an individual fulfils are in a constant state of flux.

Members of a nine-man Grand Tour team, assembled for the annual editions of the three-week Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will assume a variety of responsibilities. Some will defend against breakaway attempts. Others will collect water bottles from the team cars. Some will shelter the day’s designated leader from the wind, while that leader will aim to conserve energy for the final sprint or climb, or for key stages later in the week. All, though, are alert to opportunities to break free from the peloton’s grip and enjoy a day in front of the television cameras. For several teams, lacking the personnel for overall victory, exposing your corporate sponsor’s logo to a global audience is the ultimate objective. Brand awareness leads to revenue; a sponsor’s income can translate into ongoing financial viability for the team.

[Photo credit: Quintana ahead of Froome, Stage 20 of La Vuelta, José Jordan]

Serial masters
An effective road racer, with aspirations to win a Grand Tour, tends to master several disciplines. Invariably, they are extremely competent climbers, often to be seen at the front of the race as it reaches its highest slopes. Often they are highly proficient against the time trial clock too, the ultimate test in performance measurement. The very best are also characterised by their inner strength, their responsiveness and occasional opportunism.

Being serial masters, the Grand Tour contenders seem better able to play what is in front of them, rewriting the day’s plans when necessary, gambling where they believe the calculated reward will outweigh the potential risk. Without that mastery and responsiveness, it is difficult to adapt to and rectify major problems. Even more so to take advantage of the serendipitous opportunity. Individual initiative will often be amplified and consolidated by the supporting actions of teammates.

At the start of the 2016 Tour de France, three riders were considered potential winners: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. This was founded in part on their own form and palmarès and, in particular, on the collective abilities of their respective Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff teams. It was expected that the big three would mark each other closely, with only injury, illness or individual opportunism likely to differentiate before their rivalry was played out on the most vertiginous of the Tour’s ascents.

As things transpired, all three came into play. Contador succumbed to the effects of crashes early in the race, while Quintana’s own performance was inhibited throughout by illness. This was exacerbated by Froome’s willingness to do the unexpected; to go against the unfair stereotype he bears of being a robotic rider in thrall to the data available on his cycling computer and the instructions received from sporting directors through his earpiece.

Froome is renowned for his sudden accelerations on the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs. Rival teams watch closely, preparing to respond, either accompanying him as he breaks away from the peloton, or neutralising his efforts. On stage 8 of the Tour, there was some relief as the summit of the Col de Peyresourde was attained with the leading group intact.

As Quintana reached for his water bottle, however, Froome attacked as the road dropped downhill, assuming an ungainly and uncomfortable position on the crossbar of his road bike. It proved to be a turning point in the race, laying the foundations for Froome’s overall victory, expertly marshalled and supported by his teammates over the remaining thirteen stages.

Vuelta a Espana - Stage 21
[Photo credit: Quintana takes the honours, Stage 21 of La Vuelta, Graham Watson]

Seize the day
At the start of the Vuelta a España in mid-August, the names of the same three contenders for overall victory were on everyone’s lips. New variables were in play. How well had Contador recovered from his injuries, Quintana from illness, Froome from his efforts at both the Tour and the Olympics, where he had medalled in the time trial event? How would the apparently weaker Tinkoff and Sky teams respond to the collective strength of the Movistar squad? How would Froome cope without his Tour wingman Wout Poels?

In recent editions, the Vuelta has become known for its challenging climbs and searing heat. The 2016 race had been designed with several mountain-top finishes that would serve as enticing canvases for the climbing artists. One stage, though, stood out in the final week: an individual time trial, which many believed favoured Froome. If other aspirants to overall victory wished to take the sting out of that particular day, then they would need to accumulate a significant time advantage.

In the Vuelta, time can be gained in two ways. First, by finishing ahead of your competitors, thereby securing a time gap over them. Second, by winning the stage or finishing high up on it, particularly on the more difficult climbs, thereby earning time bonuses. The rider who has the lowest overall time after three weeks is declared the winner of the race.

Teamwork becomes essential, therefore, as members of a squad sacrifice their own prospects of finishing high up on the general classification in order to ensure that a colleague does. Trust-based relationships and collaboration informed by a shared purpose define the dynamics of the team. Often, however, there is a need for this to be supplemented by cooperation with riders from rival teams. These temporary alliances are mutually convenient as the pursuit of distinct goals are benefited by working together.

The Vuelta started with a team time trial, which immediately disadvantaged Contador, as his underperforming team lost time to the other overall contenders. This recast him in the role of agitator, of opportunistic forager, seeking out ways to regain time and a spot on the podium, if not overall victory. His actions later in the race would benefit Quintana, who soon established himself as the rider to watch on the steepest of slopes, assuming race leadership by the midpoint of the Vuelta.

On paper, stage 15 looked like it would be a short but explosive stage. Only 118km in length, from Sabiñánigo to Aramon Formigal, it had a lumpy profile, with three classified climbs, culminating in a mountain-top finish. With 112km still to race, and the peloton already on the first of the day’s ramps, Contador made the jump. His attack was marked by Quintana, and together they formed an alliance, each with two teammates alongside them, as they pulled away as part of the day’s breakaway. A gamble was rapidly translated into a race-transforming opportunity.

Froome was left behind, and as the day progressed found himself isolated without teammates from Sky. Meanwhile, Quintana’s own Movistar colleagues expertly disrupted attempts to chase down the breakaway. The events of the day were as much about Quintana’s own seizing of it as the work of his team behind him. Second place on the stage, a time bonus and Froome’s loss of over two-and-a-half minutes secured the temporal buffer Quintana required prior to the time trial. Froome’s phenomenal performance in the latter suggested what might have been, with the Sky rider clawing back two-and-a-quarter minutes from Quintana. But the latter and his Movistar team had effectively won the race on 4 September.

Peloton lessons
Stories from the peloton frequently demonstrate that it is about so much more than the individual. Network effects are key, both within the clearly delimited organisation of the team, and in the messier relationships and alliances with others in the peloton. The technical policies, rules and regulations of governing bodies and event organisers give a semblance of structure to the races. But the teams use them as creative constraints, operating more under flexible frameworks than rigid plans. Without responsiveness and autonomy, without the willingness to experiment, these teams would experience little success, letting one opportunity after another pass them by.

Paradoxically, life in the peloton is about both preparing and being willing to discard a plan at a moment’s notice. It is what Harold Jarche refers to as life in perpetual beta. Complexity cannot be dealt with in simplistic terms, uncertainty is a constant, and individuals have to be willing to respond to momentary context and trust their colleagues to follow their lead. How many organisations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors do you know that operate like this?

Pelotons are able to function in the way that they do because learning and experience is embedded within them. Young riders are mentored by seasoned professionals. They learn through imitation, trial and error, developing both instinct and intuition, daring to experiment when the occasion presents itself. The sport is all about life lessons acquired on the road, the knowledge gained from numerous failures as relevant as that acquired through the occasional success. Teamwork provides firm foundations. But autonomy within loose frameworks, decision-making and accountability are all encouraged from early on. It is this crucial combination – individual action contextualised in relation to the collective – that the modern corporation, government agency and charity now need to learn.

Further reading:


The puncheur

Are you taking over, or are you taking orders?
Are you going backwards, or are you going forwards?
— The Clash, White Riot

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery,
None but ourselves can free our minds.
— Bob Marley & The Wailers, Redemption Song

“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief,
“There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.”
“No reason to get excited,” the thief, he kindly spoke,
“There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late.”
All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
— Bob Dylan, All Along the Watchtower

6 July 2015. The peloton is taking a literal and metaphorical buffeting in the 102nd edition of the Tour de France. The race started in the flatlands of the Netherlands and is now into the terrain of the Spring classics in Belgium. The first nine days have been designed as a series of unique one-day challenges. This is a departure from previous starts to the race. It means that the teams participating in the Grand Tour, especially those with ambitions for the general classification, have had to give careful thought to the diversity and skill sets of their riders.

To show up with nine lightweight climbers who will float up the Pyrenean peaks and effortlessly ascend the Alps will be to place yourself on the back foot. Such riders will struggle in the coastal winds of Zeeland and the cobbles of northern France. They may be suffering an extreme time deficit by the start of the second week when the first mountaintop finish comes into view. Conversely, to fill the team with sprinters and rouleurs may provide dividends with the odd stage win and time spent in the classification jerseys during the first week. However, when the terrain tilts upwards, such teams will find that they are severely hamstrung.

A balance is required, including not only climbers, sprinters, rouleurs, time trialists and general classification contenders, but a type of rider that we are yet to explore in this peloton formations series: the puncheur. While much of the three-week race will be spent in service of others, with the purpose of achieving both day-specific and overall objectives, each type of rider nevertheless is likely to enjoy a moment in the sun. So varied is the type of racing and the daily parcours for this edition of the Tour, that there will be stages when riders with different preferences and capabilities will be required to assume time-bound leadership of the team.

Today – stage 3 – is the turn of the puncheur. Another opportunity will follow on stage 8 too, when the Tour takes on the challenges of the Mûr de Bretagne. These riders are specialists in rolling terrain that is punctuated with short climbs of 1-2km in length, characterised by extremely challenging gradients of 10-20%. Their domains are the hilly one-day classic races like La Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour of Lombardy and the UCI Road World Championships. They count among their number riders like Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodríguez, Tony Gallopin and Alexis Vuillermoz. As well as a few climber-puncheur hybrids like Alejandro Valverde and Dan Martin.

Purito on the Mur

Wind has been a feature of stages 2 and 3. Crashes too, including a mass, high-speed pile-up earlier in the day, which has already removed three potential contenders for today’s stage from consideration: Fabian Cancellara, Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews. So severe were some of the injuries, that the stage was brought temporarily to a halt by the race organisers as there were not enough medical crews available in the event of any further incident. As the race gets underway again, the puncheurs find themselves on familiar territory. The route takes in some of the same roads and climbs as the Spring classic, La Flèche Wallonne, finishing on the steep ramp of the Mur de Huy.

The nervousness of the peloton is evident, even for the television spectator. The first week is always a nervous one, as teams attempt to hold position on narrow roads. The wind and the crashes have exacerbated this. General classification contenders are concerned too about losing time to their potential rivals. Too many people, too little space, narrowed even further by exuberant crowds and road furniture. The teams work to protect the leaders, to ensure that they are in a good position as they turn on to the lower slopes of the final climb up the Mur.

Team Sky have done an exceptional job for Chris Froome. He is at the front not so much in an attempt to win the stage as to keep out of trouble and avoid either crashing or losing time. Clearly, he is peaking at the right time, maintaining a high tempo up the climb. Surging past him, albeit temporarily in some cases, are the puncheurs. Foremost among them is Rodríguez, chased by Gallopin, Vuillermoz (who will win in Brittany a few days later), Sagan and Martin. With Froome eventually regaining position, taking second to Rodríguez, the others will make up the top five riders for the stage. They have fulfilled their leadership responsibilities for the day.

There is something about the temporary moment in the spotlight for the puncheur that reminds me of the directors who make up the executive teams in the world of corporations, public bodies and non-profit organisations. These are highly accomplished individuals. They are leaders when they need to be, but are adept at following the lead of others too. Unlike the rouleur, for example, who tends to assume domestique duties, only occasionally venturing up the road to victory, or the baroudeur who tends to embody the qualities of the maverick, the puncheur is meant to both lead the team and chase the win – in the right context. When it is not their time, however, they step back into the shadows, supporting the general classification contender, sometimes taking on a mentoring responsibility, the role of the consiglieri. Think Valverde and Nairo Quintana in the Movistar team.

The puncheur, then, is like a George Harrison in The Beatles. Or a Jonathan Ive at Apple. Or, until recently, a Yanis Varoufakis in the Greek government. They stand in the shadow of the CEO, building rapport with their team, serving others with humility. But when the need arises they can take possession of the stage and mesmerise and inspire others with their knowledge, experience and skills.

Everywhere in early racing there is a sense of pushing the boundaries of human endeavour, of finding out through trial and, if necessary, error what the limits of the possible are.
— Max Leonard, Lanterne Rouge

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.
— Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto

They exhibit a type of fluidity founded on the power of relationships, amplified by a network of instantaneous connections.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

The group is in a constant state of flux and this becomes the key insight for them and for me. If we are standing at the edges of the Industrial Age, attempting to bring forth something novel, then there is going to be a constant shifting between positions, many of them difficult and all of them, including the ones associated with success don’t last long.
— Khurshed Dehnugara, Flawed but Willing

Who leads?

What we wanted to communicate with this swirling cluster of moving stars is the notion of fluid hierarchies, a key feature of many socialstructs that rely on the participation of large networks of people. It is not that such socialstructs don’t have hierarchies; it is just that such hierarchies are not based on assigned roles or titles. They are not results of dictates from above. Rather such hierarchies and organizational structures are fluid, emergent, and constantly evolving.
— Marina Gorbis, The Nature of the Future

The success of the elastic enterprise depends on virtually everyone exercising some type of leadership role, somewhere, in some way, through influence.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

We need all of us to take the lead, to act in line with the common purpose of our organisations.
— Christopher Bones, The Cult of the Leader

Leadership is the choice to serve others with or without any formal rank.
— Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last

Social movements and civil unrest. Popular challenges to long-established institutions. Border-crossing networks of informed crowds seeking to exercise their rights. Whether focused on fiscal policy, corporate corruption, inequality or the overthrow of dictatorships, these have formed the backdrop of world affairs over the past decade. They have been the subject of endless hours of media footage, reams of print, digital comment and observation. The emergence of what Manuel Castells has termed Networks of Outrage and Hope has raised a challenging question that continues to perplex traditional media outlets and the machinery of the state. Who leads? It was a question that greatly taxed the journalists as they interviewed the tent-dwelling protestors of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Was the answer no-one or everyone or it depends?

Strong, trust-based relationships are the genuine currency of networks. This was as true of the salon-era communities that we associate with the political and artistic movements of yesteryear as it is today. The difference now is that digital and mobile technologies foster and enable the speed and scale at which networks can be established and grow. A physical meeting strengthens a bond established online but it is not essential for the overall health of the network. People on different continents, in different time zones, can still connect on shared interests, fuelled by either hope or outrage, adding their voices and energy to the greater whole. What characterises the network in these situations is a fluidity of knowledge, roles, responsibilities and authority. Leadership is in motion, governed by context.

Networked partnerships, shaped by either collaboration or cooperation, are increasingly evident in business too. As Nicholas Vitalari and Haydn Shaughnessy argue in The Elastic Enterprise, this can happen between organisations, with certain enterprises like Alibaba, Google, Github and Apple creating platforms or ecosystems; spaces for partnerships with an array of other businesses both large and small. It can also happen within a single organisation. In Creativity, Inc., for example, Ed Catmull outlines the leadership responsibilities not only of the figurehead triumvirate of himself, Steve Jobs and John Lasseter at Pixar and Disney, but also of writers, directors and animators too. Leadership here can be a form of service, enabling others, guiding and advising.

It is also necessary to respond to context, recognising when it is your turn to take the initiative, to put your expertise or specialism at the service of others. This is not a case of telling, but of opening up a conversation, making others comfortable contributing too. Former rugby international Phil Greening has enjoyed success recently coaching the US seven-a-side team. In a Guardian interview, he discusses how he and his colleagues had to overhaul a command-and-control culture. Leadership has to come from within the team, from anywhere on the playing field. It is not the case of a coach simply instructing players on what to do. Instead it is about developing a partnership, recognising the skills and mastery, the autonomy, of each individual. As Paul Rees put it in a recent Guardian article, ‘The very best teams harness individualism, not exile it.’

In peloton formations, I use the professional cycling peloton to illustrate the responsiveness and flexibility that is necessary in the modern organisational structure. The metaphor also serves to highlight the absolute fluidity of roles and responsibilities within a cycling team itself and across the peloton as a whole. There is a constant need to adapt to context. Cycling is a sport in which competition, collaboration and cooperation are frequently in tension. Networked relationships across the peloton underpin time-bound partnerships on the road – the flight of the breakaway from the main bunch, for example – which eventually dissolve as the finish line nears. Within each team trust is essential, so too the fulfilment of specific roles on designated days – whether that is leading the pack up a climb, chasing down a breakaway, or taking your place on a fast-moving sprint train.

Cycling is an anomaly. It is a team sport in which, with the exception of the team time trial, a single person crosses the finish line to win and enjoy the plaudits on the podium. But it is a sport that also covers hugely varied terrain – rolling hills, flatlands, mountainous ranges. The composition of a cycling team, therefore, is an exercise in diversity. With diversity as an organising principle, there is a requirement to embrace a range of different but complementary skill sets, determined in part by the team’s overall objectives in the race. Is it chasing stage wins? The general classification? The climber’s prize? The sprinter’s? It is a sport that, because of its very nature, is always raising the question: Who leads?

In 2012, Team Sky entered the squad of nine riders pictured below in the Tour de France. From left to right, they are Christian Knees (GER), Richie Porte (AUS), Chris Froome (GBR), Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR), Bradley Wiggins (GBR), Mark Cavendish (GBR), Bernhard Eisel (AUT), Michael Rogers (AUS) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (BLR). The overall objective for the squad was to win the general classification, earning a yellow jersey for Wiggins. His role as team leader is suggested overtly by his positioning in the centre of the image.


However, this is a squad full of leaders. Standing next to Wiggins is Cavendish adorned in the jersey of the reigning World Champion. Boasson Hagen would also wear his national champion’s jersey during the race. Froome would follow in Wiggins’s footsteps as a multiple stage-race winner in 2013. Porte too would go on to develop as a general-classification contender. Something already achieved by his national compatriot Rogers, who is also a three-time world champion against the time-trial clock. Throughout the Tour, as well as in many other races, Eisel would fulfil the role of road captain.

While Siutsou sadly crashed out of the race on the third stage to Boulogne-sur-Mer, this meant even greater responsibilities had to be shouldered by his teammates. Who leads in this next photograph?


Wiggins wears the race leader’s jersey. Note how he is protected both in front and behind by his teammates. Does he lead here? Or is it Knees who is at the front of the peloton, taking the wind, punching a hole through the air, clearing the way for others to follow? Or Eisel who will have organised his teammates into this simultaneously proactive but protective pace line? Or Cavendish, who is also sheltered, and may be seeking to compete for the stage win later in the day, the last wagon on a runaway sprint train?

The organisation of a sprint train is an art form that illustrates the notion of rotating leadership. It is executed at high speed, in complex conditions, surrounded by other riders, variable weather, huge crowds and road furniture. The members of a team ride in formation, wheel-to-wheel. They are streamlined for air resistance and maximum velocity. One-by-one they assume leadership of the train, until finally the sprinter is alone, launching themselves towards the finish line, uncoupling themselves from the pilot fish instincts of their lead-out man.

The first of these two videos, from the 2015 Tour of Dubai, captures the work of Cavendish’s new team Etixx-QuickStep. The second illustrates the decision-making and lead-out work of Cavendish’s teammates George Hincapie and Mark Renshaw when members of the Team Columbia-HTC squad in 2009.

To answer the question Who leads?, one has to understand the importance of trust, autonomy and context. It is as relevant in the encampments of Occupy as it is on the roads of the Grand Tours, the corridors of government and the open spaces of the modern workplace.

The shift requires leaders to behave differently. There is a strong tendency for enterprises to exaggerate the prestige and esteem associated with leadership. But leaders in modern enterprises are respected as peers. They are the people who can lead change and invention because they are first among equals, not because they command the budgets. They are able to forge a new pathway for their people to walk along.
— Haydn Shaughnessy, Shift

By opening up organizational boundaries to partners, suppliers and customers, collaborative leaders can increase the flow of ideas, and often generate creative ways of reducing cost or improving service that no one would have come up with on their own.
— David Archer & Alex Cameron, Collaborative Leadership

What reasons do followers now have for going along with leaders? There are only two: either we go along because we have to (or think we do), or we go along because we want to.
— Barbara Kellerman, The End of Leadership

It is time to connect the dots between leadership, engagement, learning, technology and collaboration.
— Dan Pontefract, Flat Army


For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
— Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Put simply [social atomism] is the common assumption that the primary unit of analysis is the individual and that communities (and society) are aggregations of individuals and negotiated interests between those individuals … Atomism, or individualism, is the legitimising framework for liberal democracy and free market economics.
— Dave Snowden, Social Atomism, Identity and Natural Numbers

It is within all this that we find the real accelerants for the fall of Public Relations and the rise of Public Leadership: atomisation, activism and the asymmetry of power and influence.
— Robert Philips, Trust Me, PR is Dead

Our mass production-era sensibilities prevent us from seeing the value of mass differentiation because we are programmed to drive towards a one-size-fits-all formula for most products.
— Nicholas Vitalari & Haydn Shaughnessy, The Elastic Enterprise

In 2002, developing some of the ideas he and his writing partners had explored in The Cluetrain Manifesto, David Weinberger published Small Pieces Loosely Joined. In a relatively short but incisive study, he explored some of the effects of the still nascent world wide web on knowledge and our perception of time and space, among several other topics of interest. Weinberger’s title perfectly prefigured new ways of organising, working, collaborating and cooperating that would emerge over the subsequent years. These would be informed by loose frameworks, time-bound partnerships and shared platforms, which circumvented traditional organisational boundaries.

Enabled by technological advancement, people took advantage of the elisions of time and space that this made possible to build border-crossing relationships in order to get stuff done. Notions of where people did work, who they worked with, what they worked on and when they did the work all began to be challenged as a consequence of these emergent changes. So too the clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the individual. As the Cluetrain authors had predicted, the hyperlink really did have the potential to subvert hierarchy. So too the connections and conversations they enabled.

The notion of small pieces loosely joined is one of the governing ideas that inform my work on peloton formations. This makes a case for the responsiveness, adaptiveness and fluidity not only of the modern organisational structure but of those who work within them too. My thesis is that to participate in the modern workplace, an individual will have to become adept at switching from leading to following, from specialising to generalising, from solitary practice to teamwork. They will have to constantly adapt to context, shapeshifting as required. Not unlike members of the professional cycling peloton who day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour, have to switch in and out of different leadership, followership and expert roles, collaborating, cooperating, serving, competing.

Another book that appeared towards the end of the last century, Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball, contained hints and foresight regarding the ways in which the modern workplace might become increasingly atomised. Change agents, for example, might unhook themselves from the constraints of corporate hierarchy, migrating to the edges of their known worlds, pushing at the boundaries, bridging to the outside, the unknown. Internally, they might campaign for a dual operating system of the kind that John Kotter discusses in Accelerate. Or exit the organisation entirely, maintaining connections in a freelance capacity, making the old hairball one planet among several in an ever-expanding solar system. The way was being prepared for the porous organisation; one which relied as much on partnerships with other companies, and a cadre of freelancers, as it did on the people on its own payroll.


The evolving pattern began to affect public organisations too, either through privatisation, public-private partnerships or a radical rethink about organisation and governance. The story of the NHS in the UK continues to unfold, and is a fascinating case study in this respect. But this is not exactly a new situation. We have seen monolithic organisational structures dismantled before, creating opportunities for new ways of working, new forms of organising. Take the example of the film industry, for example.

Cinema quickly developed from novelty attraction to fully-fledged industry in no time at all. It established itself as a lucrative, cultural machine. In the USA, the filmmaking centre soon shifted from New York to Los Angeles, which offered many more hours of the sunlight that the early cinematographers required in order to capture good quality images on celluloid. Elsewhere scientific management practices were taking root in big emergent industries, with the success of Ford’s car manufacturing earning particular notice. Similar conveyor-belt like approaches developed in Hollywood cinema, covering end-to-end endeavour: from initial idea, narrative conception, performance, photography and editing, to its eventual printing, distribution and display. Big businesses emerged, monopolies of the few, horizontally and vertically integrated, with names like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. The addition of sound strengthened the monopolies and ushered in the so-called Golden Era that extended through the 1930s and to the end of WWII.

The post-war period witnessed successful challenges to the established paradigm. The first atoms broke loose, new production companies began to emerge. Some were associated with marquee names: actors who had broken free of arrangements that had made their careers the ‘property’ of the big film studios; directors too whose value was beginning to be recognised and celebrated by critics influenced by developments in literary theory. In a key ruling, The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., the studios were forced to divest themselves of their theatres, fundamentally changing their distribution and exhibition model. There was evidence too of greater partnership with small and independent production companies. Film credits began to change, reflecting the increasing atomisation of the industry. This was something that would extend well beyond the USA, affecting the industry as a whole.

A comparison between the opening credit sequences of a classical Hollywood film from the 1930s and a recent popular success is illuminating. The Thin Man was a well-received adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett novel, which was rapidly filmed and released in 1934. A single title card establishes that this is a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production and lists the principal and supporting stars, director and producer, all of whom were on contract to MGM. A second card acknowledges the source novel and some of the behind-the-scenes talent that worked on the film. There is also a small nod to Cosmopolitan, which suggests that William Randolph Hearst may have had some financial interest in the production. Nevertheless, this is clearly packaged as an MGM film and relied on the studio’s own people and exhibition network for all phases of its development and distribution.

Mike Leigh’s 2014 art-house and critical success, Mr. Turner, is a different proposition altogether. The opening titles are a lengthy read: (1) Film 4, Focus Features International & BFI present (2) a United Kingdom / French Republic / Federal Republic of Germany co-production (3) in co-production with Diaphana and France 3 Cinéma and Amusement Park Films (4) with the participation of Canal+, Ciné+ and France Télévisions (5) produced by Xofa Productions in association with Lipsync Productions (6) A Thin Man Film. All this before the viewer is informed who is in the film or, indeed, what it is called.

I wonder, if we were writing the credits to the multiple projects that consume so much of our time today, whether they would reflect equal levels of atomisation, of small pieces loosely joined in common purpose?

But in terms of how and where work actually gets done, there is very little to beat the small, agile team of committed people with a clear shared goal. I doubt even the most timid consultant or vendor could make an argument that hierarchical operations are the most efficient way to get work done. For companies trying to become more competitive in the 21st Century, we foresee a rebalancing of structure with a reduction in hierarchy towards what we might label a minimum viable hierarchy, with pods or agile teams growing from the branches, and more focus on developing the lateral social fabric of communities and networks.
— Lee Bryant, The Limits of Social Technology within Existing Organisational Structure and Culture

A swarm organization is a decentralized, collaborative effort of volunteers that looks like a hierarchical, traditional organization from the outside. It is built by a small core of people that construct a scaffolding of go-to people, enabling a large number of volunteers to cooperate on a common goal in quantities of people not possible before the net was available.
— Rick Falkvinge, Swarmwise

Decentralization has been lying dormant for thousands of years. But the advent of the Internet has unleashed this force, knocking down traditional businesses, altering entire industries, affecting how we relate to each other, and influencing world politics.
— Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom, The Starfish and the Spider

The more fully we believe a model is reality, the more rigid the model becomes. And the more rigid it becomes, the more it confines us.
— Gordon MacKenzie, Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Peloton interview

Richard Martin: In Summer 2014, I was interviewed by Stowe Boyd about the concept of peloton formations. This was a topic that I had started to explore earlier in the year in a series of blog posts. Stowe published the interview, based on an email exchange, on 26 July 2014. It appeared on the Gigaom Research site under the title The New Visionaries: Richard Martin on the Peloton. I was grateful then for the opportunity to pull together the various strands of my research. I am grateful now for the opportunity to re-post our exchange.

Stowe Boyd: Richard Martin wrote a series of posts in which he characterized people working together productively as being like the bicycle racing phenomenon of the peloton: the main group of riders that conserve energy by riding close together.

Martin’s exposition owes a great deal to Dan Pontefract, who used the analogy in a post last year, but Martin has intertwingled it with Jon Husband’s wirearchy notion, and the thinking of other theorists and practitioners.

I thought I’d ask Richard some questions, and the interchange below is the result.

Sky in Control
[Photo credit: Sky in Control, Will Bakker, 2 June 2011]

SB: I think there is a great deal of depth in the metaphor of new way of work being like the peloton, which is the formation of cyclists in a road race. The cyclists ride in close formation because of the benefits in reducing drag, but of course different teams are trying to win the race even while benefitting from the aerodynamics of being in a pack.

RM: One of the things that unites the cycling peloton is common purpose. All the teams, all the riders, are trying to get from point A to point B on a designated course as safely and in the shortest amount of time possible. Additionally, day-by-day, in long stage races like the Tour de France, each team will have a slightly different objective. Some are aiming for the overall prize of the yellow jersey awarded to the rider who covers the entire course in the least amount of time. Others target the white jersey of the best young rider, the green jersey of the points classification leader or the polka-dot jersey of the mountain climber’s classification. The composition of their team may well reflect these particular goals. Others still may simply target a stage win on a specific day when the terrain and conditions suits their team or, more modestly, may hope for lengthy TV exposure for their corporate sponsors by getting one or more of their riders into the day’s breakaway.

Because of this mixture of goals, sometimes you will witness great examples of partnership, collaboration and cooperation between riders and different trade teams. There is also, of course, a lot of competition too. In the latter case, though, it might not just be people competing against one another but against the elements, the terrain or the clock. There is wonderful human drama in evidence in bicycle racing. There is also a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect that transcends the boundaries between trade or national teams. You can get a taste for this by following a few professional riders on Twitter.

In the context of the racing itself, it is evident on the days that the race routes head steeply upwards into mountainous terrain. While TV coverage focuses on the front end of the race, behind it the peloton fragments into many parts. Right at the back a gruppetto of riders forms, usually composed of the sprinters, the riders with bigger physiques, the cooked and the wounded. They work together regardless of team affiliation. Their goal is to arrive together as a single unit at the finish line within a time limit calculated on the basis of the stage winner’s finishing time. Another example of cross-team cooperation can be seen in the way breakaway riders work together to stay away from the peloton. It is only in the last kilometres of the stage when this cooperation gives way to competition again. The breakaway usually serves as the hare to the peloton’s greyhound. Occasionally, though, the hare eludes the hound – especially in cases when the cooperation between the breakaway group persists to within sight of the finish line.

From a business perspective, there is a lot to be said for this notion of common purpose that can help unite multiple divisions and project teams. But also for those willing to partner and cooperate with others, even those outside your own company. I recently read A. G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. It is not a book I enjoyed. Nevertheless, there are some good examples in it of when P&G realised they could create more value by partnering and cooperating with companies who were competitors in other fields. I think you witness evidence of this on a daily basis in the cycling peloton.

SB: On top of the manoeuvring of the teams against each other, there is a dynamic interplay among the members of a team, where they switch off in different roles, taking turns leading, sprinting and climbing. That seems to be in perfect alignment with the notion of fluid or emergent leadership: what I refer to as leanership. There has to be a lot of planning and communication for that to work, right?

RM: My thinking about this has been strongly influenced by Jon Husband and his concept of wirearchy. Jon defines wirearchy as: ‘a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.’ What intrigues me about Jon’s concept is that he is not denying the existence of a hierarchy, but he recognises that this has shifted from a pyramid to a network model. Do any network analysis, and you will identify nodes of influence and authority. These do not recognise the stripes on the arm or the job titles that we associate with military-industrial ideas about hierarchy. These influential nodes are also in a constant state of flux. Leadership roles may be defined, as in more traditional notions of hierarchy, but what is different here is that people move fluidly to and from these roles, dependent on context and circumstance. So, as I work on multiple projects for my employer, in one situation I may be the leader, in another I will follow someone else’s lead, and in yet another I may be acting more in a consultancy capacity, providing specialist subject matter expertise.

You certainly observe this fluidity of roles and leadership responsibilities in the cycling team. This can be determined by a number of factors: terrain on the day, weather conditions, the form of the rider, experience. Even on the day itself leadership responsibilities will shift as the race progresses. Usually teams will have a road captain. In most cases this is not the team’s main sprinter or climber but one of the support riders or domestiques. This individual will be liaising with the directeur sportif via radios or visits to the team car, but there will also be a high degree of autonomy for the other riders, with each of them responding to what they see around them, assessing risks, seizing opportunities.

Some teams are built around sprinters who come into their own on flatter stages. Sprint trains form in front of the sprinter, with a line of riders following closely on one another’s wheel. The front rider punches a hole through the air, takes the wind resistance, and their colleagues ride in their slipstream. When they peel off another comes to the front, and so on until, with about 300m to go, the sprinter comes to the fore. All along, they will have been calling our instructions and encouragement from the rear of the sprint train. On mountainous days, the team puts themselves in service of their climber, who also, if they can time trial too, is often their contender for the overall general classification. The team members aim to deliver their leader to the foothills of the day’s final climb in the leading group so that they are in a position to compete for the stage victory or minimise the loss of time to their main rivals.

Cycling, in this sense, is infused with the idea of servant leadership. I think there were a couple of great examples of this from Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France. Often we would see television images of Mark Cavendish, adorned in the rainbow stripes of the reigning world champion, ferrying water from the team car to his teammates. This, bear in mind, was the world’s dominant sprinter at the time, who was putting personal ambitions on hold in support of the team’s overall objective: securing the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. On the final stage of the same race, with Wiggins’s and the team’s victory assured, we then witnessed a role reversal. The final stage is an iconic race for sprinters, one that Cavendish had won each of the previous three years. There in his sprint train, in service of Cavendish and his goal, was Wiggins leading out his friend and teammate.

As for planning, there is certainly a lot of work done. Many teams will visit certain climbs and stage finishes well in advance of the grand tours. On race day itself, they will send former road racing professionals ahead to check conditions (both of the road and the weather) and to communicate their findings back to the team car and the riders. British cycling coach Rod Ellingworth has written an illuminating book called Project Rainbow. It describes the collaborative work of backroom staff, coaches and riders in planning for the 2011 men’s world road race championships and for the 2012 Olympic Games race. For the GB team, their aim of securing bunch sprint finishes for Cavendish earned victory in the 2011 world championships and nothing at all at his home Olympics. The team rode strongly on both occasions, but others had learned how to counteract their tactics by the time of the latter race.

What emerges in bike racing are loose frameworks rather than detailed plans. This is not racing by remote control. It involves decision making at the edges as well as in team management. Not all variables can be accounted for, and riders need to be able to respond to what they see before them. This is well illustrated in a video exploring Team Garmin Sharp’s targeting of stage 9 of the 2013 Tour de France. Dave Brailsford, one of the leaders behind the recent success of British Cycling and Team Sky, is interviewed in Richard Hytner’s recent book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows. He makes an interesting observation: ‘My approach is as an orchestra conductor, with an absolute recognition that the most important people in our world are the people who win and they’re the riders.’ Brailsford and colleagues can select the nine-man team for the Tour, but then they have to get out of the way and trust the instincts, expertise and experience of the riders on each day of racing.

SB: You’ve written about the various roles in a cycling team, and how these roles are similar to archetypes in the new way of work. The climber, for example, has attributes of a driven, high energy visionary. Perhaps you could give a short explanation of the other roles?

RM: When they step into their leadership roles on the flatter ground, sprinters are great salesmen. I mean this in the sense intended by Dan Pink in To Sell is Human. They sell ideas, galvanising their teammates, getting them to believe in their objective for the day, building common purpose, and inspiring them to invest effort in delivering them to the finish line, where they will complete the job. It is notable that the first action of the highly successful sprinters like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel is that they greet their colleagues at the finish line to thank them for their efforts. There is also a commercial aspect to the sprinter’s salesmanship. They are often great communicators, comfortable in front of the media cameras and microphones. Their job is to cross the finish line, arms in the air, displaying the names and logos of their corporate sponsors. They are mobile, high velocity advertising hoardings.

Rouleurs are strong riders, adept in rolling terrain, time trials, sprint trains and chasing down breakaways. These are team people whose primary role is service of others, assuming domestique functions. I liken them to the internal service roles in corporations, the people in finance, facilities, HR, IT, learning and development and KM departments. Occasionally they are set free to pursue personal goals, getting into breakaways, winning time trials. This is not unlike the occasions when somebody from a support function takes on a leadership or specialist expert role in a corporate project.

Baroudeurs are among my favourite riders. These are the change agents, the chancers and experimenters. They constantly challenge the status quo, making things up as they go along, taking risks, testing their colleagues in the peloton. There was a great example of this in Tuesday’s Tour de France stage this week. A strong group of baroudeurs – people who can climb but not overall contenders for the Tour win – had formed an impressive breakaway. As they hit the final climb they began challenging one another, comfortable in the knowledge that one of their number would win the stage. Two riders from Team Europcar were working together, taking it turns to attack. They could not shake loose Michael Rogers from Team Tinkoff Saxo, though, and in the end he chose his moment to attack and just rode away from them. His post race interview was brilliant, demonstrating a cool, calculating mind, mental fortitude, a tolerance of risk and an acceptance of possible failure. If you do not try things out, how will you learn if they are going to work or not?

That covers the riders, but we must not forget that a role is also played by the tour organisers, the local government for the towns that play host to the start and end of each stage, the police, the backroom staff for each team, the directeurs sportifs, and the riders’ coaches, not to mention the crowds that line the route. These are the policy makers, the regulators, the landlords, the suppliers and customers that are all involved to varying degrees in a company’s business.

SB: It’s the fluidity and near flight of the peloton that makes it such an inspiring image. In one of your pieces you call it ‘humankind’s answer to the murmuration of starlings’. How can we transcend the poetic and aspiration of the peloton into concrete learning for the business, today?

RM: The reason I am so drawn to the metaphor of the cycling peloton as a model for organisational structure is because it is suggestive of responsiveness, fluidity, agility and adaptiveness. I like the idea of small pods or teams loosely joined, which respond and cater to their customer needs. This can mean the rapid forming, disbanding and reshaping of teams to deliver different projects. These can extend beyond organisational boundaries too, suggesting the permeability of the modern, responsive company. A project team can be comprised of your own employees working in partnership with people not on your payroll. It can include your customers and suppliers too.

The other thing I take away from bike racing is this idea of multiple systems being interdependent on one another. On any given day you could have a route that covers 200-plus kilometres, travelling through numerous towns and cities, over railway crossings, bridges and roundabouts. Agreements have to be drawn up with these communities, crowd control needs to be put in place, and the roads closed for a period of time. Then there is all the infrastructure of the race itself, the catering vehicles, publicity caravan, the media, the gendarmerie, the team cars and support vehicles. There are the huge crowds too, who on mountainous stages will be spilling on to the road, and who have to be trusted not to interfere with the riders as they pass by. On top of all that there are the meteorological conditions and the state of the roads to be traversed too. A huge spaghetti soup of complex interlocking systems. No one of these systems can be treated in isolation. Just like the different systems that shape and inform the operation of any other business.

I get frustrated when I hear people talking about work as an ecosystem operating in splendid isolation from everything else – government policy, financial markets, customer needs. As a counter argument I’m inclined to use an example that affected me earlier this year: we experienced heavy rainfall in Kent where I live. When the rain stopped our streets were lightly dusted with sand from the Saharan desert. What a great example of how different ecosystems connect and are dependent on one another.

SB: Richard’s expansion of Pontefract’s peloton metaphor is rich and illuminating. The interplay between different roles in the teams is captivating, and so is the manner in which individuals lead at the front – to break the air for the peloton and their teammates in it – and then fall back into the pack as another – often a competitor – presses forward to take a turn at the front.

Martin draws our attention to the image of ‘small teams, loosely joined’ – an allusion to David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, I’m sure. I’ve written on the distinction between different social scales, and the way that the interplay differs in small sets of people – networks of a few or a handful of people – versus the louder and less intimate interactions of social scenes, where dozens or hundreds may be connected.

I’ve made the claim that we live our work lives in our sets, although businesses may want to treat us as scenes, thinking that it is easier and more efficient. But we are more at home and at ease when working as a sprinter or climber on a team, jostling for position in the peloton, signalling and pushing the team ahead, one of the loosely joined.


What counts?

clarifying the whole grammar of waiting
not removing one question from the air
— W. S. Merwin, A Codex

Because I can no longer raise
the questions,
because I cannot support
truth or its widower’s eyes,
now I will be flame,
the young man says.
— James Sallis, Memory’s Empire

A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There are many men adept in those diverse disciplines, but few capable of imagination – fewer still capable of subordinating imagination to a rigorous and systematic plan. The plan is so vast that the contribution of each writer is infinitesimal.
— Jorge Luis Borges, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

On 4 July 2009, as a belated 40th birthday present, I visited the Tour de France for the first time. This consolidated a fascination with the professional sport that had been further piqued in April by standing at the roadside (and then in the velodrome) for that year’s edition of the one-day classic Paris-Roubaix. As I walked the streets alongside Monaco’s Port Hercules and up into Monte Carlo in oppressive heat and cloying humidity, I watched riders from the different trade teams warm up and inspect the course for the time trial that would launch the great event. Proximity to the athletes and support staff, together with the atmosphere and anticipation among the fans, was a heady mix. I was smitten.

Elsewhere in Monaco the latest pages in the first chapter of another story were being written. This was one that would buttress and intertwine with my appreciation of professional cycling and my borrowing from it for the notion of peloton formations and the exploration of responsive, adaptive organisations. Behind the scenes the then performance director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford, was in negotiations to establish a new professional men’s road racing team for the following season: Team Sky. Everything about the team, from its initial launch, its openness to and advocacy of new practices, its bucking of tradition, have tended to divide opinion since its black-clad riders first appeared in the peloton during the 2010 season. For some, Team Sky is viewed as an interloper, an undesired change agent. Its failures are celebrated just as vociferously in certain quarters as its successes are lauded in others.

Of course, there is no right answer. The story of Team Sky is a story of both/and not either/or. Sky serves as a bridge from the past to the present: a new team combining youth and experience; clean riders and a backroom team tainted in part by cycling’s doping past; established professional racing practices blended with new techniques related to training (of both body and mind), performance assessment, nutrition, an individual’s race schedule, clothing, sleeping habits, adoption of information technology and use of big data. You can walk around the story of Team Sky over the past five years and constantly reframe, adopt a different perspective, find an angle that suits either diatribe or eulogy. There is evidence of naivety and misplaced confidence just as there are many examples of innovation and unprecedented success. It is the story of a start-up taking on and then rapidly becoming part of the establishment. No different, really, than the story of a Google or a Facebook.

One of the factors that informs the culture and operation of Team Sky is the notion of continuous improvement. Brailsford has absorbed ideas from kaizen and from other sports, notably Manchester United’s treble in 1999, England’s success at the 2003 rugby world cup and the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball story in baseball. He has coined the phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, which is all about making infinitesimal improvements across a broad range of things rather than a huge advance in a single thing. It echoes Clive Woodward’s argument that success often is ‘not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better’. As Daniel Friebe argues in his article ‘Cyclonomics’, Brailsford’s fascination with Moneyball reflects a shared interest in data and what can be learned from it. It proved to be a contributing factor in an unprecedented run of Olympic and World Championship success for British track cycling under his leadership. Lessons learned also were adapted for and absorbed by his road cycling programmes too, first with the British Cycling Academy and then with Team Sky. It eventually led to close partnerships with the likes of Matt Parker and Tim Kerrison, the latter one of the architects of Tour de France triumphs for both Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013.

[Photo credit: Grand Départ, Richard Martin, 4 July 2009]

Like many sports, cycling has always been one filled with data and statistics. It includes time measurements within each stage, aggregated time assessed over stage races, and points systems for certain jerseys. More recently, a rolling points system has been established by the UCI, the sport’s governing body, that assigns a quantified value to individual riders and can impact on the licensing of the trade teams for which they ride as well as the size of their national teams at competitive events. It is a sport in which numbers matter. As with any workplace, performance assessment is in place and it can affect individual, as well as team, behaviour. Brailsford appears to have introduced another dimension too, which others have been quick to copy. For example, the biological passports and long-term performance data of athletes were assessed prior to some of the early signings for Team Sky. With Kerrison in place now, the collection and assessment of training data is constant too, as the team seeks to understand where an athlete’s tolerance threshold is, helping them determine the correct pace for climbing a given mountain or closing the gap to a breakaway. Some of the riders now seem to find it difficult to tear their eyes away from their power meters as they hit the peaks of the grand tours.

A recent Guardian interview with Brailsford by Sean Ingle suggests that there is much more to follow. Brailsford has spent time in Silicon Valley assessing new technologies and how they might support rider performance and health, continuous improvement and effective decision making. Sensors in clothing, for example, have the potential to provide a dashboard of rider health information, real-time data that can impact on who should lead on a given day, who should attack the peloton and when, and so on. There is a danger that the riding then becomes robotic, remote controlled from team cars. It is a criticism already levelled, perhaps unfairly, at Team Sky and others in the peloton, particularly in those races in which radio contact between riders and sporting directors is permitted. It is a criticism that tends to ignore the level of autonomy the riders themselves have. It is not all about numbers or radios.

There are many riders in the peloton who are not quantified serfs. Like the corporate employees who rebel against the calibration process that accompanies the annual review, there are prominent athletes like Mark Cavendish who mount a numeric challenge. It is well known that Cavendish performs dreadfully on the static testing equipment that generates assessment metrics. Thankfully, his abilities on the road, his capabilities among the peloton and his strength of purpose were all recognised early in his career and this overrode the story the numbers told. As a consequence space was made for the qualified self. One of the most successful careers in road cycling sprinting followed. Numbers do lie. We should not always be in thrall to them. Brailsford himself is one of the first to observe that data or technology will not themselves give riders an edge. It is the application of these things, their enabling potential, that matters together with the athlete’s own talent, the mastery of their discipline, their decision making and autonomy within the context of a loose framework.

This was brilliantly illustrated at the 2015 edition of the one-day race Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Another example where the story suggested by numbers was turned on its head. Riding for Team Sky, Ian Stannard was the reigning champion from 2014. Through smart riding and great awareness, he had managed to manoeuvre himself into the decisive breakaway in the final kilometres of the race. There was one problem, however: a significant numeric disadvantage. The three other riders in the breakaway all belonged to the same team, Etixx-QuickStep, specialists in the north European races over the cobblestones. Among their number were Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, winner of the 2014 edition of Paris-Roubaix, and Tom Boonen a serial winner of one-day classics and one of the most successful cobblestone riders of the past decade. This, however, was a race without radios, the breakaway’s bubble punctured by occasional visits by team cars to the front of the race. In other respects the riders were on their own and had to self-organise. The Etixx decision making proved to be flawed, and Stannard, through a combination of his own skill, mental fortitude, physical strength and canniness was able to outwit his companions and win the event. It was a demonstration of talent and autonomy. Evidence that the riders selected to represent the team will always outweigh any interest in data or technology. People first. Always.

After a far-from-perfect season in 2014, Team Sky’s dual emphasis on both its people and its drive for continuous improvement is already bearing substantial fruit, of which Stannard’s solo efforts are just one example. Elsewhere Chris Froome and his teammates overcame the challenge of Alberto Contador to win the Ruta del Sol, Geraint Thomas claimed overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve stage race and Richie Porte prevailed after eight days of Paris-Nice. Cycling is a team sport where individuals win, one person stepping onto a podium representing the networked efforts of teammates on the road and the support team of directors, coaches, chefs, psychologists and data analysts which orbit them. The marginal gains have effectively blended training methods, professional mastery across a spectrum of disciplines, a balance between quality and quantification, planning within broad frameworks, the adoption and application of appropriate technology, and trust placed in the ability and decision making of the athletes on the bikes.

So, what counts? Certainly not just the numbers. As with the operation of any organisation, from small-scale cycling team to huge corporation, the people matter above all else. They flourish in the right environment, with a supportive culture, enabling technology, common purpose, freedom to express their professional mastery, and autonomy to respond and adapt to context. Cycling is a fascinating mix of human endeavour, mechanisation and technological advancement. The way each element is harnessed to achieve objectives is crucial to the concept of peloton formations and its broader application to business.

The scientific part comes, for me, before the race, in terms of my position, training and looking at the course. But once you have the strategy, you just go out there and give it everything.
— Steve Cummings quoted by Colin O’Brien in The Art of Time Trialling

Dave Brailsford had famously coined the phrase ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, and there was some of that in here, but really all we were doing was aggregating a lot of common sense and mixing in some passion, determination and a bit of camaraderie.
— Mark Cavendish, At Speed

Here, what paid off was the way the riders had been trained to think for themselves during the race, to communicate and to be honest.
— Rod Ellingworth, Project Rainbow

In a race, you don’t have five seconds to think about things. You make a decision in an instant. You feel it.
— Johann Museeuw quoted by Harry Pearson in Last of the Flandrians

A racer’s life is the constant pursuit of a goal. To push ourselves to extremes we are always looking beyond the present. Our bodies move in the moment, but our minds are two steps ahead … During the races we are constantly counting down our lives. Our cyclocomputers tell us how many kilometres we have covered, so we calculate how many are left. The directeurs remind us over the race radio how many kilometres there are until a climb, a corner, a windy section, an intermediate sprint, a town, and the finish. The markers are both tactical and psychological … Along the way we tick boxes as objectives and targets are achieved. We are constantly working towards improvements, setting greater goals once we have achieved the first ones and recalibrating after missing others.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road