What Sports Performance can Teach Product Leaders
As a huge sports fan, I am fascinated by high performance. What makes the top teams, top athletes more successful? It’s reasonable to think that in any sport the top teams have similar resources; outstanding coaches, training facilities, nutrition, sports psychology. So what strategies do the most successful teams use, and can these same strategies be used in creating high-performance Product Teams? Looking through some notable sports performances, I’ve pulled out some key coaching concepts and show how they can relate to Product Leadership.
Process versus outcomes
Dave Alred is an elite sports performance coach known for helping rugby players, golfers and footballers. Dave specialises in handling pressure. He has an excellent set of tools to do this, but one area that initially felt very counter-intuitive to me is Process vs Outcomes.
You are judged on your outcomes. If you release a new piece of functionality and it is unsuccessful, then you are rightly judged on it. But should you be? Dave would argue that if an International Rugby Fly Half, missed the first three kicks in a game, then the outcome is poor. When that player lines up kick number four if they were to dwell on the previous outcomes, they would be less likely to make the kick. Think of the process, the hundreds of hours of practice will allow the player to step up with confidence.
Returning to your product team and an unsuccessful release. The outcome is poor. However, it’s well-known lots of new features fail, but was the process good? Did you de-risk the project by having a robust discovery phase? Was this prototyped and tested throughout the project? Did you transition to users in the right way? Finally, was it a ‘lean’ enough that failure is just another way to learn, and you can move on quickly to a more successful project. Product leadership is ensuring that you have robust, consistent practices across your teams, open challenging conversations and mechanisms to learn and improve.
Thinking correctly under pressure (T-CUP)
Clive Woodward won England’s first (and only) Rugby World Cup. He deployed a range of techniques one of his most famous is TCUP, thinking correctly under pressure. During a game, unexpected things can happen, you could be winning then concede several points very quickly. This sudden change in score could be enough to unsettle a team and ultimately lose the game. TCUP is a way to help players in pressure situations. Intelligent decision making improves when you remove the pressure. By simulation scenarios during training, safe space, you can quickly adapt in the moment.
As a product leader, you will often have stressful scenarios. We tend to live and work in the moment, thinking what’s in front of us instead of putting time aside for deeper considerations. Situations that could affect any product leader include; an unsuccessful major release, your software goes entirely down, simultaneous resignations in your team, an aggressive/loud/opinionated member of the C-Suite who derails much of your work. You may not solve all these problems, but by considering what is likely and how you would manage it will significantly improve your decision making in the moment.
British Cycling was in a significant slump when David Brailsford took over. David is credited for a massive turnaround in British track cycling ensuring a huge haul of medals most notable in London 2012. David then moved to road cycling managing Team Sky who won four Tour de France.
David accepted that most top teams are broadly the same. Similar levels of funding, coaching, the effort by the athletes. So what makes the number one team, number one? David focussed on marginal gains. Merely a 1% improvement across all activities, in combination with a continuous improvement mindset. Marginal gains could be extreme, having a wind tunnel so that every cyclist could improve aerodynamics, or much more straightforward, such as each cyclist taking their pillow when travelling to ensure the best nights sleep.
A simple lesson, 1%, David splits this into Strategy, Human Performance and Continuous Improvement. Within Product Leadership, the model can be used as-is. Continuous small improvements to the process, product strategy and your team will, over time, contribute substantial gains.
Will this make the boat go faster?
Ben Hunt-Davis was part of the British Rowing 8 team who won gold in Sydney. However, before this, the team had been around 7th for the previous two Olympic cycles. They knew the teams around them didn’t train harder, so why did they always do better? They realised that they had to train smarter, with the one critical question, by doing X will this make the boat go faster?
By applying this simple question to everything they did, it gave real clarity to what was essential or not. There is, of course, more to consider. Again, process over results, teams need to set common goals and clear your mind of other peoples opinions to name the few that resonate with me.
Transferring this to Product Leadership seems relatively easy at first. However, the trick is knowing what makes your boat go faster? In rowing it is simple, you want to win races, to win your boat needs to cross the line first, simple! What does that mean to your product teams? There is no hard a fast answer, it will depend, if you are B2B, B2C, how you monetise, etc. I would avoid financial objectives they are primarily consequences of other activities. Growth is always a good starting point; user, customer, market share. ;0)
All the named sports performance coaches have an array of techniques, and this just scratches the surface. I would recommend reading each in detail for more significant insights. The advantage of sport is that it is so much more focussed on a single goal than many Product Teams. Success is clear cut, being the first to cross the line, or the team with the biggest score. Product, unfortunately, isn’t quite as clear. However, knowing what winning is to your company will undoubtedly help, and using these techniques, which has helped some the most notable teams have incredible success may help your boat go faster!
Dave Alred — book — The Pressure Principle
Clive Woodward — book — Winning
David Brailsford — YouTube — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THNBIQenywc (6:34!)
Ben Hunt-Davis & Harriet Beveridge — book — Will it make the boat go faster?
Don’t tell me the score — Podcast — Interviews with many leading sports performance coaches and players.