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Work in IT? You’ve got more in common with athletes than you think

  • Posted on August 9, 2016

Athletes

It’s that time of year again when we get to celebrate sport, and as both an IT professional and a part-time athlete (who trialled for the British taekwondo team) it’s fair to say – I love this time of year. With this as a backdrop, I think you might be surprised to learn that the challenges faced by both IT pros and athletes, as far as I can see, aren’t all that different.

Let’s start with IT. In our New Economics of IT vision, we state that IT leaders today are faced with unprecedented levels of technology disruption, and increasing expectations from stakeholders. To be successful, CIOs need to take two distinct approaches: be predictable to optimize the core and exploratory to innovate the business.

In sports today, spectators increasingly expect to see athletes reach new limits. As a newly turned amateur triathlete (with a distinct preference for cycling, which will become evident as you read on) I’d quickly confess to be one of those people, always reaching to better my personal best.

David Epstein presented an excellent TED Talk on how technology has made a drastic impact to sporting performance. In fact, he makes the case that human performance has been almost unchanged since Eddy Merkz set the record for distance cycled in one hour at 49.43km in 1972. That record, using the same equipment today, was set by Chris Boardman in 2000 and stood at 49.44km, just 0.02% difference. In contrast, the replacement hour record allowing modern and technologically advanced equipment was set by Sir Bradley Wiggins in 2015 at 54.52km, almost 10% difference.

There’s a rapidly growing expectation to see world beating results, with human performance fairly stable, but a massive influx of new methods and technology – sound familiar?

We’re seeing professional athletic teams adopt a “marginal gains” methodology to approach this challenge, taking the mantra that if you can improve individual aspects by 1% you will find significant improvement overall.

The Predictable Approach: Optimize the Core

Without a strong core, it’s clear that an athlete will struggle – even with all the latest technological advances (we like to call this “all the gear and no idea”). To modernize training methods, everything comes down to data. As an example, in training, Sir Chris Hoy knew that if he could output upwards of 2000 watts of power, he could better predict his performance; making training methods both predictable & optimized.

The Exploratory Approach: Innovate the Business

When building on the data we have, it then becomes possible to look at exploratory methods that enable us to innovate. In one famous fitness innovation, it was found that sleeping in the right position, with the right pillow, even while travelling (something apparently borrowed from the Royal Ballet) could improve performance. This exploratory approach allowed the team to test all the latest technology enhancements to see what could help them both go faster in races, and make training even more predictable.

What Can We Learn?

Much as in sport, utilizing both of the two distinct approaches to IT, predictable and exploratory, are key to success. Making IT predictable and optimizing the core provide organizations with a strong foundation, enabling employees to focus on higher value-add tasks. This is when the exploratory approach to innovating the business can flourish. At the same time, the exploratory approach in itself can lead to innovations that help optimize the core.

It’s a balancing act - but if you get it right, there is big opportunity for business differentiation to be achieved.

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