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 catastrophic 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.


Quintana ahead of Froome, Stage 20 of La Vuelta, José Jordan, September 2016

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

Quintana takes the honours, Stage 21 of La Vuelta, Graham Watson, September 2016

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 short but explosive. 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.

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

To be a participant in a complex system is to desire to be both lost and found in the interrelationships between people, nature, and ideas.
— Nora Bateson, Small Arcs of Larger Circles

The collective is reflected in the individual.
— Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer, Everything Connects


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 and 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

Joaquim Rodríguez celebrates victory on the Mûr de Bretagne

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 Mûr.

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, mesmerising and inspiring 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 and 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 and 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.

Team Sky 2012 Tour de France team

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?

Team Sky in action at the 2012 Tour de France

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 and 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

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.

Grand Départ – Monaco

Grand Départ, Richard Martin, 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

Road captain

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting
— Walt Whitman, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’

It is a mistake to think that being called “captain” means you do everything yourself.
— Martin Johnson, The Autobiography

When you’re dealing with ongoing challenges and changes, and you’re in uncharted territory with no means of knowing what comes next, no one can be expected to have all the answers or rule the team with an iron fist based solely on the title on their business card. It just doesn’t work for day-to-day operations. Sometimes a project is a long series of obstacles and opportunities coming at you at high speed, and you need every ounce of your collective hearts and minds and skill sets to get through it.
— Robyn Benincasa, ‘Six Leadership Styles’

The very essence of leadership, going out ahead to show the way, derives from more than usual openness to inspiration. Why would anybody accept the leadership of another except that the other sees more clearly where it is best to go? Perhaps this is the current problem: too many who presume to lead do not see more clearly and, in defense of their inadequacy, they all the more strongly argue that the “system” must be preserved — a fatal error in this day of candor.
— Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

It is 28 July 2012. The peloton is on the ninth and final circuit of the Box Hill climb in the London Olympics men’s road race. This is a gold medal target for the GB team, who are riding in support of one of the world’s top sprinters, Mark Cavendish. A breakaway has formed ahead of the peloton, and one of the main threats to Cavendish’s ambitions, Fabian Cancellara, takes this opportunity to attack and bridge across to them. As Cancellara makes his move, Cavendish seeks to follow him. But he is called back by his road captain, David Millar. Millar has judged that they are still too far out from the finish line, and that they have a strong chance of reeling the breakaway in during the remaining kilometres. He does not want Cavendish to expend unnecessary energy on the chase now and have nothing left for the sprint finish they hope to set up.

As things transpire, however, the victor and other medallists all emerge from the breakaway. The GB team’s attempts to control the peloton in the same manner that they did in the previous year’s World Championship, admittedly with a larger team, will prove ineffective. Other teams have learned from 2011 and know that if they work with the GB team to close down the gap to the breakaway, there is every chance that they will be helping set up Cavendish to add a gold medal to his World Champion’s Rainbow jersey. There is no cooperation today. While Millar’s seemed the right call to make, in retrospect it backfires on the team.

The point here is not to highlight the wrong decision made but two other factors. First, the autonomy of the cyclists on the road. The Olympics road race title was a long-term objective for GB cycling, one element in their Project Rainbow, which included the 2011 success. It involved several years of collaboration between coaches, administrators and riders from competing trade teams. Both events had Cavendish as their nominated leader – the sprinter the others were riding to protect and to position for the race’s finish – and Millar as the on-the-road captain. For all the planning and training, the riders have to respond to conditions and context on the day. Both the Worlds and the Olympics are races that do not allow for radio communication between team support cars and the riders. Trust therefore has to be placed in the experience and decision-making of those on the bikes, in particular the road captain.

Trust is the second factor to highlight. Cavendish’s trust in Millar is unwavering. While they have a history of competing against one another for their respective trade teams, with Millar working for one of Cavendish’s great rivals, Tyler Farrar, they have established a burgeoning friendship. This is a consequence not only of Project Rainbow and the occasional training ride in one another’s company, but also of shared experiences at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Millar is the elder rider who has experienced both the highs and lows of the sport, including a ban for doping. He is knowledgeable and experienced, nearing the end of his career, but still able to deliver moments of adventure and panache. He is not unlike some of the player-managers that enjoyed success in the top flights of football in the 1980s.

The road captain is most definitely not a position of command and control. There is a nurturing aspect to it. One founded on service of others; the team as a whole, the cyclists on the road, the directors in the team car, the protected rider for the day, the climber, the sprinter. Bernie Eisel is another close friend of Cavendish who has emerged as a natural road captain at the trade teams in which they have ridden together, including HTC Highroad and Team Sky. The supportive nature of his role is often hidden from the television cameras. As the action happens up the road on the high peaks, towards the back of the race, Eisel can be seen coaxing his sprinters up the long climbs. In 2012, he also was instrumental in organising the team on the road in support of Bradley Wiggins’s pursuit of the race leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

Bernhard Eisel

Bernie Eisel, road captain for Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France

In other situations, the road captain, often themselves adept rouleurs, good time triallists and occasional one-day race contenders, assumes the role of teacher. They are tutor, guide and friend in a master-apprentice relationship with upcoming stars. This comes across strongly in Beatrice Bartelloni’s description of her friendship with and respect for two-time Road World Champion Giorgia Bronzini at the Wiggle-Honda women’s team. On other occasions, teams contract with grizzled veterans like Roger Hammond, Alessandro Petacchi, Juan Antonio Flecha, George Hincapie and Michael Rogers to take on leadership roles in support of riders who were formerly their competitors and peers. Petacchi’s role in support of Cavendish at Omega Pharma-Quick Step during the 2014 season is a case in point. At Team Katusha, in another example, Luca Paolini, still a hugely accomplished rider in his own right, uses his craft, experience and decision-making skills to enable sprinters like Alexander Kristoff and general classification contenders like Purito Rodríguez to achieve podium success.

What cycling illustrates constantly is that leadership can come from anywhere. At the heart of the peloton formations concept is the notion of fluidity; fluidity of organisational structure, as well as fluidity of roles and responsibilities. The road captain is not a hierarchical role but more an articulation of the knowledge and mastery that are necessary for success on the road. The role is taken on by different people on different days. Context is important, as is the individual’s relationship with the designated protected rider. The road captains mentioned here share a strength of character, conviction in their own decision-making, mutual trust with their teammates and a willingness to share their experience. They are great tacticians and excellent communicators.

As Millar’s Olympics story suggests, the road captains do not always get it right. Nevertheless, they invariably enjoy the loyalty of fellow riders and support staff for whatever decisions they make. This is not a blame game. Trust is all. This is built over time through shared experiences. Evidence that their on-the-road guidance to teammates can often make the difference between failure and success only serves to strengthen that trust. Reigning Commonwealth Games champion Lizzie Armitstead recently described the effect of her trade team road captain, Chantal Blaak, during the third stage of the 2015 Tour of Qatar. Blaak recognised the over-eagerness of her teammates, coaching them and keeping them calm, guiding as they organised themselves for the stage win. Her actions and encouragement of teammates helped secure the overall victory for Armitstead and the Boels-Dolmans team the following day.

Like a good project manager or internal consultant in the corporate world, the cycling road captain can lead from the front, from behind, from the side or from the shadows. They coach, mentor and enable others, serving as social connectors between riders on the road and the support teams behind the race. They are master craftsmen, big-picture thinkers who improvise strategy on the fly. They are decision-makers who unite teammates in common purpose, maintaining that unity through both failure and success. They are champions of the framework within which the team operates, the glue that holds the team together.

It is at once a position of great responsibility and total subservience, fulfilled by a shifting cast selected on a race-by-race basis both for their suitability for a given event and for their relationship to the rider that the team hopes will win it.
— Timothy John, ‘The Role of the Road Captain in Professional Cycling’

Riders who are willing to adapt and learn will succeed. All it takes is a bit of guidance that instils confidence … In races, we can’t control the unpredictable external pressures – the peloton, nervousness, our rivals, the wind – and they force our bodies and minds to adapt.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

There’s more than one type of professional cyclist. There are those who have the potential to win big, and there are those who may not ever get near a big win, but who still make themselves valued in the professional peloton.
— Tom Southam, ‘The Nearly Men’

The role of road captain demands so much more than talent: it is racing with the mind as well as the legs, calculating tens of tiny, ever-changing elements in the heat of battle. It is patience, experience, intuition, tactics, reading of tiny signs in yourself, your leader and your rivals, knowing the course, weather, racing instinct, nerve; even personality and comportment off the bike.
— Andy McGrath, ‘Luca Paolini’

The apprentice’s craft

The old craftsperson is back. He lost his job to the factories and became a worker; now he is back as a small business owner, this time with new tools to compete with the old workplace.
— Rolf Jensen and Mika Aaltonen, The Renaissance Society

The master craftsman is adept in using a philosophical framework, as well as tools and materials, to deliver useful things to the world. But more than that, the craftsman must be open constantly to new ideas; he is essentially always in beta.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

If you were a craftsman, or merchant, or clothier in the case of Rembrandt’s drapers, guilds offered members and society at large great benefits: ranging from education and apprenticeships to medieval forms of peer review, and all important stamps of approval.
— Peter Sims, The Return of the Guild

For all the innovations and dominance of different materials in their manufacture, the shape of the racing bicycle frame has remained remarkably consistent since the latter years of the 19th century. The road bike diamond is familiar to all, regardless of whether you express an interest in the sport or not. The production of these frames transcends the hazy line that separates bespoke artisanship and craft from large-scale industrial output. Indeed, just as professional cycling is inextricably connected to the evolution of mass media from the late Victorian period onwards, so too does the history of the bicycle in the same period reflect in microcosm shifting attitudes towards industry and craft. The revival of interest in cycling and the emergence of the maker movement has prompted increasing curiosity about the skills of the master framebuilder.

In Open, David Price observes that ‘Efficiency, standardisation, elimination of waste, were key drivers in the shift from craft production to mass production.’ Bicycle manufacture was no exception. Early on, craftsmen had mastered the manipulation of steel tubing, shaping it into attractive frames with ornate lugs. However, the incessant search for lighter, cheaper, stiffer and stronger parts and frames, particularly in professional cycling, led to experimentation with other materials too, including titanium, aluminium and carbon. The development of carbon moulds, as well as alternative methods for manipulating carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers, opened the way for outsourced mass production in Asian factories. Designed in Italy. Made in Taiwan. The names of famous brands plastered over uniform products lacking any idiosyncrasies.

Off-the-shelf bicycles flooded the market to suit all riding styles, body shapes and sizes, not to mention wallets. But they lacked the personal touch. It was at the fringes of cycling culture, among the messenger community, for example, and the fixed-wheel enthusiasts, that something a bit more distinctive could be seen. Famous old marques and steel steeds were dusted off and repurposed. Artisans of the past were sought out, their knowledge and craft highly valued again. Steel and titanium frames offered romanticised memories of things past, a different feel on the road, a ride that appealed to those less interested in haste. Measurement here related not so much to speed, distance covered, calories burned and heartbeat, as to bespoke fit for your own body. In his It’s All About the Bike – and the documentary film that complements it – Rob Penn enthusiastically describes the experience of having crafted for you, by an experienced artisan, a frame that fits you like a glove. Bella Bathurst, in her The Bicycle Book, goes further still, describing the experience of making your own frame under the watchful eye of a master framebuilder. The journey to knowledge mastery starts with both conversation and action.

Genesis Equilibrium Ti frameset

It is intriguing to see how the professional cycling teams have carried over the notion of the master–apprentice relationship into the sport itself and not just in its supply chain. In peloton formations there is always a fluidity of leadership, roles and responsibilities that is governed by context. The passage of time comes into play too. For example, many successful professional cyclists at career’s end as practitioners on the road move into advisory or management roles off it, serving as sporting directors, coaches and mentors. At the other extreme is the space created for promising, young amateur riders towards the end of each professional cycling season. Stagiaires are given the chance to gain experience competing in professional races as short-term members of established teams. This gives both the rider and the team the opportunity to assess readiness, attitude, aptitude and team fit. It is an immersive learning experience, where callow youth rubs shoulders with and performs alongside seasoned veterans of the road racing circuit. For some it is the launching pad to a successful career. Mark Cavendish, for example, was a stagiaire with the T-Mobile Team in 2006, having spent time in one of their feeder squads. The following year he was riding his first Tour de France with the same team.

The novice is exposed to the knowledge and expertise not only of the master but of the colleagues with whom the master interacts. Skills are acquired through observation, imitation, enquiry, internalisation, deed and subsequent repetition. It happens in the cycling team with the annual introduction of new team members and constant access to veterans of the sport. It happened in the medieval monasteries, as suggested by The Name of the Rose; Adso learning not only in the moment alongside Brother William, but years after the fact as he reflects back on past events and filters them through decades of subsequent experience. It happened with the blacksmiths, bakers, cobblers and masons of old too. It happens still on a daily basis, in workplaces large and small, in both the office filled with knowledge workers and the artisan’s workshop occupied by the few. It is personal knowledge mastery made manifest. A perpetual exercise in curiosity, acquisition and application of learning. Both master and apprentice continuing to learn together.

Where recognition and reward for one’s expertise is the end goal, there is always the danger of stagnation. An organisation comprised only of a team of deep specialists is not unlike a bank of elevators, separated from one another, loosely serving a common purpose but only occasionally pulling in the same direction. The tendency towards hyperspecialisation fosters a blinkered perspective. The knowledge and personal experience of the individual gradually becomes valued above all else, curiosity fades, self-promotion escalates, expertise loses its currency and evolves into empty rhetoric without foundation in the market it is intended to serve. The craftsman as the incomplete, always evolving learner is a useful countermeasure to this. By remaining open to new ideas – including those introduced by their own youthful apprentices – the craftsman allows themselves to blend new knowledge with traditional practices, to experiment and tinker at the edges.

Some of the great innovations in cycling equipment, including the quick-release wheel, have resulted from such Trojan Mice initiatives. So too some of the nutritional and training practices adopted by cycling teams open to the influence of newcomers experienced in other disciplines. Many of the great masters of painting have also shown themselves to be receptive to new influences and ideas. Picasso’s career, for example, is one marked by many sudden deviations and experiments in form and style, co-opting and personalising, cycling constantly between the role of master and apprentice. Maybe what our modern offices need are a few more neo-generalists, who can both span as well as mine specialisms, an injection of artisanship and a greater emphasis on learning while doing.

It is a rewarding, stretching venture. The quest for a mastery that can never quite be attained. What Harold Jarche calls life in perpetual beta.
Knowledge artisans are retrieving the older artisan model and re-integrating previously separate skills. Knowledge artisans not only design the work but they can do the work. It is not passed down the assembly line.
— Harold Jarche, ‘A New Way to Work’

An apprenticeship is one kind of learning field. A team is another kind of learning field, because the action is shared among the members of the team.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company

Craft is what we are expected to know; art is the unexpected use of our craft.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

It turns but does not try to remember
it does not precede or follow
obey or disobey
it is not answering a question
it arrives knowing without knowledge
— W. S. Merwin, ‘The Artisan World’

Peloton formations

This post was written shortly after presenting a Pecha Kucha on the topic of peloton formations at Workplace Trends 2014. The 20 slides shown as part of the presentation can be viewed as a PDF file. I was required to speak for 20 seconds per slide. To meet the time requirements and establish a rhythm of sorts, I recited a poem, which has been adapted into the following text. It was subsequently published in Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work in June 2015.

Peloton formations

As I approached my 40s, I rediscovered a love for cycling. Physical activity and rides through the Kentish countryside on a new road bike were quickly followed by an interest in professional road racing. Hours were spent watching the sport, reading about it in voluminous depth, making my first visits to classic races like Paris–Roubaix and the Tour de France. An obsession quickly had established itself. Around the same time I developed a growing awareness of different approaches to the world of work, different ideas about how we might organise ourselves, think about leadership and learning, and the relationship between companies, their partners, suppliers and customers. At some point the interests began to intertwine.

There are many metaphors in business. Many rely on nature: swarms of insects, murmurations of starlings, schools of fish, worker ants, termite mounds. As we are focusing on people, though, I wanted to use a human example. One that also suggested the communion between us, technology and machine: the cycling peloton. For me, this is an example of the responsive, adaptive organisation to which many of us aspire. The peloton is united in common purpose. But there are many different objectives within its confines. Some members aim for the overall victory, some for the different jerseys on offer, some for stage wins on specific days, some simply for television exposure and advertising opportunities for their corporate sponsors.

The peloton enters Bordeaux

The peloton enters Bordeaux, Richard Martin, July 2010

As with a company, its internal operation and its partnership with external organisations, the peloton is rife with competition, collaboration, cooperation and co-creation. The competition can be at an individual and a team level, just as a corporation may compete with other companies as well as internally for people, money, technology and other resources. On occasion, though, both businesses and members of different cycling teams will partner to mutual benefit. Within a cycling team itself, all work together for a common objective. One person crosses the finish line in first place, but often this is a team victory rather than an individual one.

This mixture of competition, collaboration and cooperation can be seen in the breakaways that often form early on during each day of professional cycling races. It is informed by cooperative effort between team rivals and co-creation as the group pulls away from the peloton, then works together to stay away. The breakaway competes with the peloton, trying to remain out of the latter’s reach. Competition within the breakaway only resurfaces once the finish line is within its grasp. The breakaway is cycling’s skunk works. A place of experimentation, frequent failure and constant learning.

Often to be seen in the breakaway is the baroudeur. These are cycling’s change agents, the non-conformists, who frequently question and challenge the status quo, rattling cages, ignoring reputations, and stamping their own personalities on the race. A good example is Thomas Voeckler, loved by the fans for his devil-may-care attitude and on-the-bike gurning. He has been responsible for animating many races, attacking at will, trying to shake things up. He is less loved by his colleagues in the peloton, though, because he constantly leads them to the unknown, challenging and stretching them, making them suffer as he innovates and animates.

Another personality in the peloton is the sprinter. These are the accomplished PR men, smooth communicators who understand that it is their jobs to unite their teams in common purpose. The team’s goal is to enable them to cross the finishing line, arms in the air, exposing their sponsors’ logos. The sprinters take the plaudits and the glory on behalf of the team, ensuring that the victory is savoured and shared by all as they greet their teammates at the finish line.

An efficient, well-organised but responsive sprint train is like poetry in motion. Each member of the team puts in their own effort at the front of a line of riders, taking the wind resistance and providing shelter for their teammates behind them. With 300m to go the last member peels off, leaving the ground open for their nominated sprinter to finish the job. This is like agile project delivery, each member of the team knowing exactly what is expected of them and when, but responding to minor variations around them.

Sprinters like Marcel Kittel, André Greipel and Mark Cavendish are beneficiaries of the work of well-practised sprint trains. They are the ones who cross the line with their arms in the air. But that is the outcome of the high efficiency and continuous improvement achieved by their teams. Collectively, their teams are serial winners. They maintain a high ratio of wins through seeking marginal improvements, and responding to shifting conditions and context in the peloton. At the 2009 Tour de France, for example, Cavendish crossed the line in first place six times. On the final stage, which finished on the Champs Élysées in Paris, so effective were the Columbia HTC team that both the final lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, and Cavendish were far enough ahead of the field to claim first and second places in the sprint. As a team, Columbia HTC improved stage victory by stage victory throughout the Tour.

The final stage, Tour de France 2009

Champs Élysées, Richard Martin, July 2009

Teams tend to operate under loose frameworks rather than minutely detailed plans. Any plan, in this respect, is only ever guidance. The riders on the road have the autonomy to respond to what they observe around them. Crashes. Poor form. Exceptional form. Shifts in climactic conditions. This is decision-making at the edges. Responsiveness and fluidity dominate. There was a good example of this in the 3rd stage of the 2009 Tour. Support staff had driven the stage route earlier in the day, and reported back on spots where opportunists might want to make a move. Michael Rogers, one of the Columbia HTC team, recognised that they could attack the peloton as a group on a particularly sharp bend in the road, which was exposed to a strong cross wind. He called his team members to take action, and a concerted team effort fragmented the peloton and set up Cavendish for a sprint victory.

Even long-term goals, like the Great Britain team’s targeting of the 2011 men’s world road racing championship in Copenhagen (aka Project Rainbow), can only ever be informed by loose frameworks. Here the goal was to set up a bunch sprint finish, giving Mark Cavendish a chance, as one of the world’s fastest sprinters, to cross the line first. Each member of the team had a loosely defined role to help accomplish this, but the freedom to respond to what was happening around them. David Millar was the team captain on the road, but there were other leaders too, requiring some members of the team to protect Cavendish during the day, and others to lead and control the peloton. The goal was accomplished with tactics that were proactive, responsive and fluid, as required. Communication between team members and trust that had been built over a two-year period of preparation were key factors.

The fluidity of roles is hugely important in the peloton. They recall Jon Husband’s original concept of wirearchy, which highlights 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. The peloton is a form of network, but even within the network there is a hierarchy of roles. The difference is that people are not inseparable from a given role. Indeed, they move fluidly between them as context and circumstance requires. When the road is flat, the sprinter leads. When the mountains are high, the climber comes to the fore. At other times, they follow the lead of colleagues, or offer their expertise in different areas. The responsive organisation is similar. At any one point in time, you can be involved in multiple projects, leading some, following the lead of others on some, advising yet others.

Humility and self-knowledge are essential for such fluidity of roles to be effective. At the core of the cycling team is a form of servant leadership. Members of the team put themselves in service of their colleagues. The leader for the day is determined by context – terrain, weather conditions, form, health, overall objective and day-specific goals. Service can take the form of leading from the front, taking the wind, sheltering the designated protected rider for the day, so that they are in the best condition when the final challenge is in reach. The servant leaders attempt to control the peloton too, selecting who they will allow to get into the day’s breakaway, judging when it is time to close the gap between the peloton and the day’s escapees.

The Sky bus nears the finish line in Boulogne

The Sky bus nears the finish line in Boulogne, Richard Martin, July 2012

The 2012 Tour de France offered a great example of servant leadership. Mark Cavendish was the reigning world champion, wearing the coveted Rainbow bands. He was recognised as one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton, as well as the most successful sprinter to have ever participated in the Tour de France since the event began in 1903. Team Sky’s goal, though, was to win the overall Tour and secure the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. Cavendish put himself in service of this goal, parking his personal ambitions. He acted as a super domestique, ferrying water to his colleagues in the team and leading them up the lower slopes of the big climbs.

When Wiggins’s overall victory looked assured, and the terrain was more suited to the sprinting maestro, roles were reversed. Wiggins, adorned in the race leader’s yellow jersey, put himself in service of the day’s objective rather than the overall goal. He slotted into Cavendish’s sprint train, acting as one of the final lead-out men. One of the great images from the 2012 event is of the Tour de France winner leading out his friend and teammate on the iconic Champs Élysées, setting up yet another victory for the successful Team Sky.

The climber is another of the peloton’s great characters. This is the individual around whom myth and fable hang like a cloak. The nicknames acquired by these giants of the road speak volumes: The Angel of the Mountains, The Eagle of Toledo, Il Campionissimo, The Cannibal, The Badger, The Pirate. These are cycling’s visionaries. Like some of business’s great entrepreneurs, they seem to see and reach out for things that many of us cannot even imagine – until we suddenly find that we have been led there. Despite their apparent physical delicacy, the climber is a driven individual, with a strong will and purpose. When they are good time trialists, as well as outstanding climbers, these are the people that the team works for to secure overall victory in the big races. Their role is to win on behalf of the team, often leaping away from the comfort of their companions as the most difficult slopes and the highest peaks hove into view. They are both connected and lonely. Leaders and strategists. Not unlike many CEOs.

A world champion in Monaco

A world champion in Monaco, Richard Martin, July 2009

The time trial is known as the race of truth. It involves either a single rider or a team racing against the clock. There is no hiding place. When performed by an individual, this is the closest cycling gets to the workplace assessment; the combination of measurement, delivery and individual scrutiny. The coasters, the tryers and the high achievers are easy to spot. More interesting is the team time trial. Five have to cross the line before the clock stops. Nine begin the stage and work in unison. All for one and one for all. But the team is only as strong as the fifth strongest member, so the high achievers have to hold themselves in check and serve their teammates. Otherwise their high capability in this form of racing can be harmful to their colleagues. To perform well in an individual time trial, you have to know yourself and your limitations. To perform well in a team time trial you have to know the abilities and limitations of all your teammates as well, and cater to them.

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. Often rouleurs like Bernie Eisel of Team Sky take on the role of captain on the road. They guide and influence their colleagues and act as the link between the other cyclists and the directeurs sportif in the team cars.

Cycling teams involve not only the riders but a supporting infrastructure. This is comprised of sporting directors, coaches, medical staff, nutritionists, chefs, mechanics and bus drivers. Former cyclists often fulfil the role of sporting directors, helping the team operate within its loose framework and achieve its race objectives. These are the people who drive the team cars, liaise with the riders on the road from their vehicles and via radios, handing out food, drink and clothing. Other former riders travel ahead of the race too, reporting back on weather and road conditions, providing information that can inform decisions taken by the riders themselves.

The caravan reaches Brignoles

The caravan reaches Brignoles, Richard Martin, July 2009

Beyond the teams of riders and support staff, there is a broad range of interacting systems. Within the context of the race itself are the race organisers and the hosts of the start and finish of each stage. Then there are the media, the police, the publicity caravan, the volunteers controlling crowds and flagging road furniture, the spectators themselves. Not forgetting the roads, the roundabouts, the level crossings, the bridges. The weather is also a huge factor. Intense heat, pouring rain, strong wind, heavy snow all have an impact on the peloton and what it can achieve. Nothing operates in isolation, just like our businesses and the multiple interacting systems they have to navigate – from financial markets to regulation to customer needs. The peloton and the business constantly have to respond and adapt to external factors.

Peloton formations is all about the fluidity and agility not only of modern organisational structures but of the roles and responsibilities of those who work within them. It recognises the need for people who are able to lead, follow, guide, advise, specialise or generalise, adapting to changes in context and circumstances. People who work in small units in synchronicity with and service of a larger whole. People willing to experiment, learn and act on new knowledge. People who can respond and adapt to systemic shifts and changes in their customers’ needs.