The peloton

This post was written shortly after presenting a Pecha Kucha on the topic of peloton formations at Workplace Trends 2014. It was subsequently published in Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work in June 2015.

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.

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.

Columbia train; Contador not far behind in yellow
[Photo credit: Tour de France, 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 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.

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.

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.

 

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