April 23, 2013

The Organization as a Cycling Peloton

As it turns out, cycling is beginning to take over North America as an extra-curricular athletic hobby.

According to the National Sporting Goods Association the number of Americans who ride bicycles is greater than all those who ski, golf, and play tennis combined. According to Outdoor Foundation there were 1.2 billion cycling outings in America in 2011 second only to jogging and running.

This got me thinking about one of my favourite personal passions (cycling) and our corporate organizations.

Maybe if we were to act like a peloton in our organizations, we might see higher levels of employee engagement.

peloton2What’s a peloton?

In cycling speak, it’s what a pack of cyclists are called when they ride together. Check out the photo to the right for an example.

A peloton is a massive group of riders who ultimately work together — as a team — to move from one distance to another. Take away competitive cycling competitions for a moment (eg. Giro d’Italia or Tour de France) and think about amateur cyclists going out for weekend rides or events like the GranFondo between Vancouver and Whistler.

These women and men ride together as a team but what happens along the journey?

  • Sharing the load
    • Cyclists take turns at the front of the pack (ie. the peloton) to both set the pace and to protect others behind them from the wind. (A process known as drafting)
    • Those in front exert extra effort so others in the back can save some of their energy for their turn at the front at another interval in the ride
  • Proactive Communication
    • Often in a peloton, cyclists are proactively communicating with each other
    • If there is debris on the road, hand signals from whomever is in front alerts cyclists in the back to be careful
    • “On your right” or “stopping” are simple examples that cyclists shout out in the peloton to inform others of their intentions
    • “My turn to share the front” or “anyone need food or water” are other proactive examples of communication happening inside the peloton
  • Encouragement and Recognition
    • Whenever there are difficult impediments like tough gradients, sideways wind, pellets of rain, or even the successful maneuvering around unforeseen wildlife, cyclists from within the peloton are quick to recognize the effort or encourage the effort to continue
    • It really is a culture of encouragement inside the peloton
It would be nice if our organizations thought like and acted similar to a cycling peloton.
It sure might assist efforts to drive up employee engagement, creating a culture of sharing and connected leadership.

8 Replies to “The Organization as a Cycling Peloton”

  1. As Gareth Morgan wrote in Images of the Organization, a book entirely devoted to describing various metaphors of the organization (alas, the peloton is not one explicitly mentioned), “metaphor invites us to see the similarities, but ignores the differences. Metaphor stretches imagination in a way that create powerful insights, but at the risk of distortion.”

    And so I’d start with that somewhat cautionary tone. Both as a student of organizations big and small (20 years in) and as a competitive road cyclist with a “career” that goes back to 25 years…

    And so, because your comparison has tapped into something so profoundly intimate in terms of my knowing (not just knowledge), my immediate response was “which peloton is Dan talking about?” – and of course, then I think that’s a perfect question to also ask, “which organization are we talking about?”

    Every peloton is different. General constraints hold the thing together (if it’s not held together, and it disintegrates, it’s arguably not a peloton anymore) – like the total number of riders, the conditions, the ability of the riders – and of course, the broader context of the purpose of the peloton to start with.

    A pack of cyclists out for a Sunday club ride, may exhibit some of the more “friendly” attributes that you’ve got listed above, Dan. But the peloton that I spent time towards the peak of my abilities, was about as Darwinian as it gets. We were in competition with each other. We were trying to inflict pain and suffering on each other, through tactics and strategies, each of us playing a role as an individual, sometimes as a member of a team, within the context of a race. That race may last one day, multiple days, it may part of a race series over a number of events that season.

    So for me, that’s where the metaphor breaks down a bit. The temporary truce of the breakaway companions, a small group that has escaped off the front in search of glory, TV coverage, or just as part of their team duties and responsibilities, is a far cry often from the camaraderie of a group of peers or club members out for a weekend jaunt.

    And drafting may be seen as freeloading, not doing one’s work – at which point the rules of the peloton are broken. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma, the tragedy of the commons and Machiavelli, all rolled into one giant chess game at 50kmh, with 100 guys playing at the same time.

    Complex system? Absolutely. Passes the test of agents, interactions, non-linearity, “system level behaviours” that emerge, and some kind of resilience / robustness / ability to adapt to external forces (changing conditions).

    Is it the right metaphor to model your org after? It’s a beautiful thing, the peloton, with its flow and motion, speed and seemingly effortless coordination – the closest thing I’ve come to understand the flocking behaviours of fish and birds – and it’s exhilarating to be inside.

    But it’s also a nasty place, filled with rivalries, ego’s, doping, and fierce competition. One that requires the ability at the highest levels of the sport, to commit oneself fully and completely to the goal of being able to suffer more than your competitors.

    One where sometimes, nice guys don’t finish first.

    Sounds kinda like the organization…

  2. @Gord … yer comment was 120 words longer than my actual post. #wow Thanks for chiming in. I completely agree (although have never been part of a professional peloton) which is why I prefaced my comments with “Take away competitive cycling competitions for a moment (eg. Giro d’Italia or Tour de France) and think about amateur cyclists going out for weekend rides or events like the GranFondo between Vancouver and Whistler.”

    My experience is based on ‘friendly pelotons’ with friends, add-ons, Italy/Spain/France trips, etc.

    And your comments certainly help others realize that not all pelotons are as I depicted. Thank you.

    Do you need a hug? 😉

  3. And this is why I shouldn’t leave blog post comments at 11pm at night after a long day… Apparently I missed that bit about ignoring the competitive peloton part.

    Looking forward to getting tucked into Flat Army.

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