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What Business Can Learn From the Military

“Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier,” said Dr Johnson. Is this what is behind the large number of parallels that are drawn between military service and business? Business leaders are simply indulging their armchair-general fantasies, imagining their corporate decisions as battlefield orders to think less meanly of themselves? I don’t believe so. The military and civilian worlds are separate but there is much they have taught and can teach one another.

As for parallels, there certainly are a lot. I know that military history has inspired many business articles because I have written many of them. I have explored lessons from the motivation of French Revolutionary armies, the operational freedom of Napoleon’s Corps system and the political micromanagement of the Vietnam War. I haven’t written these pieces in order to give anyone a sense of martial pride, but to use history – military history in particular – to facilitate learning.

Yes, there are undoubtedly individuals out there trying to compensate for ‘not having been a soldier’ by fighting their own boardroom battles. This is evidenced by the influx of military language into the business world. Customers and clients are ‘targeted’, when perhaps they should be connected with or reached out to.   However, just because some have, for whatever reason, taken lessons from the military in a very literal and potentially unhelpful way doesn’t mean to say that there is nothing positive to learn.

As such, this article is primarily a defence of the idea that there is a wealth of relevant knowledge to be gleaned from the armed forces. Those who believe that business men and women merely enjoy playing at being soldiers point to the apparent disconnect between the two systems. The military operates within a clear rank structure; orders are given and followed. Conversely, in the modern corporate world there is an emphasis on delegating responsibility; on empowering and freeing your people.

However, modern businesses aren’t rudderless. Empowered employees still need to be working cohesively and not embarking on their own rogue agendas. How has this been solved? Businesses have looked to the military for inspiration – to the Prussian army 200 years ago, to be precise. The command and control of the armed forces is not as rigid as is imagined. The Prussian concept of Auftragstaktik (mission-orientated tactics) became a component of military doctrine across the western world and has since become a significant influence on how civilian businesses are run.

The central idea of Auftragstaktik is that commanders should give their subordinates general directions of what needs to be done, allowing them freedom to determine how to do it. For example, an officer might receive orders to attack a certain position but, as the person on the ground, it will be their decision whether to assault directly or from one of the flanks. The orders will contain the intent of their superior officer and the concept of operations on a wider scale. This should inform their decision making but not dictate it. If the commanding officer’s intent is to make a rapid advance, the subordinate will have to prioritise speed but still retains overall discretion.

This has proved equally successful in the civilian world. Managers are able to communicate to their subordinates what needs to be done when and where. Importantly, they must convey why this needs to happen, as ensuring everyone knows their manager’s overall intent and concept means that they will be working in the same direction. However, the manager can delegate the responsibility of how this happens to each individual. Empowered people, working harmoniously – all derived from a military doctrine.

The military is not an archaic organisation but a forward-looking entity capable of generating new thinking and new systems of management. Civilian managers only now learning about management methods which have been used in military circles for over two centuries may well discover other successful management and leadership techniques through studying the armed forces and their history. The military are people who know about managing people when the stakes are at their very highest. This is not playing soldiers or compensating for ‘thinking meanly’ of yourself – it’s learning from experts and there is much we can learn.

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Hurry up and evolve!

The dinosaurs get a hard press. ‘Don’t be such a dinosaur’, ‘you can’t afford to act like the dinosaurs whilst everyone evolves around you’, or ‘a business which doesn’t embrace change will go the way of the dinosaurs’. The poor dinosaurs didn’t have a lot of time to react. As far as they were concerned they were kings of the planet until a meteor brought about their very sudden demise.

There wasn’t a lot of time left for them to evolve themselves out of trouble. If a meteor impact today altered the climate, made the planet inhospitable for all but reptiles and we humans went extinct, we’d be upset to learn that descendants of today’s snakes and lizards sat in their offices telling anecdotes about how mammals should have evolved.

Evolution is a slow process. The textbook example is the mutation that gave a giraffe a slightly longer neck. Those with the longest necks were the most successful, reached the most leaves and survived to reproduce. The mutation was carried down their genetic line and longer necked giraffes bred with other longer necked giraffes. The result of millions of years of evolution is the incredibly long necked beast we see today: A great example of evolutionary progress and survival of the fittest.

However, we don’t live on the African Savanna; we live in the valley of the dinosaurs. The giraffes are evolving towards a stationary goal. Leaves are always on tall trees. In the 21st century, change comes at us like meteors.  One day we are talking about ‘satellite navigation’ as a luxury feature in executive cars, the next it is a free app on everyone’s mobile phone. In business, the leaves are always moving – they can move off of the tree entirely and be found somewhere different. Years of evolving a long neck comes to nothing if the savanna has changed shape.

Disruptive ideas, technology and companies hit us like meteors. We don’t have a giraffe’s luxury, we are much closer to the unenviable situation of the dinosaurs… and things didn’t go well for them. So can nature provide us with any hope or inspiration? Fortunately, yes. We have rapidly altered the planet ourselves and nature has provided examples of micro-evolutions in its attempts to deal with the sudden changes.

Love them or loathe them, urban foxes have adapted their diet and lifestyle to the modern city and thrive. London pigeons and stray Moscow dogs have been spotted using public transport to follow the crowds (and their free food) by travelling between tourist locations in the day and popular nightspots after dark. Birds in Mexico City have started using cigarette butts in their nest construction. The butts are freely available, have good insulating properties and contain chemicals which act as insect repellent – the birds have used the modern world to improve their lives.

In a rapidly changing world it is possible to make rapid adjustments and prevent business extinction. This may mean thinking about the way you work, the way you travel or the technology you employ. It’s important to have long term plans, but these plans need to be adaptable. Deforestation and urbanisation didn’t change the Mexican birds’ long term nest building plans – they were able to adapt and continue to thrive (and model upcycling while they were doing it). It is still survival of the fittest, but mental agility and the ability to think up innovative solutions plays a much more significant role in the fitness of a modern business.

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Authentic Listening

‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ – Jimi Hendrix: Purple Haze

People listening to Purple Haze have heard ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’ so frequently that it has become the title for an online compendium of misheard song lyrics. The archive also contains Elton John’s line ‘I remember when Iraq was young’ and Queen’s ‘the algebra has a devil put aside for me’. Fortunately there are few consequences for mishearing a song, save embarrassment (Someone I know who thought Bon Jovi were Livin’ on a Prairie has not yet lived it down). However, failing to listen at work can cost you dearly.

‘Donald Duck took my chances’ – Survivor: Eye of the Tiger

In the worst case scenario, failure to listen could result in total crossed wires leading to a waste of time and effort for everyone involved. More likely than failing to listen at all and embarking up the wrong tree entirely is failing to listen authentically. Minor misalignments, out of sync priorities, missing details and confused timescales will all cost. The cost might be in lost opportunities, damaged relationships, disagreements, or missing out on repeat business.

The examples of song lyrics on this page (and accompanying cartoon) demonstrate misheard words. There’s not much to advise if you simply hear something other than what was said, other than to apply your common sense.  A more subtle and more common problem is misinterpreted words. The 500 most frequently used words in English have 1400 definitions between them. The same words can mean different things depending on geography, industry, and public and private sector. An office can be a building, a space within a building, a title or a group.

‘There’s nothing that a hundred men on Mars could ever do’ – Toto: Africa

There is a clear need to pay attention to avoid mishearing but, when it comes to misinterpreting words and meaning, does the fault lie with the speaker?   Should they express themselves more precisely? No – the onus is on the listener to understand from the speaker’s point of view. Whilst you can realistically expect clients not to be totally ambiguous, you can’t expect everyone who speaks to you to deliver a comprehensive request, specific in every detail (if they did you may well be cursing them for being too meticulous).

Authentic listening involves communication. That means asking questions if there is any ambiguity. Be alert to areas of known ambiguity – a ‘report’, for example, does not mean the same thing to everyone. Each of us has an understanding of words and language unique to our experiences, knowledge and perception. There needs to be a certain amount of communication between two different people to establish an understanding. Authentic listening requires talking.

‘Money for nothin’ and your chips for free’ – Dire Straits: Money For Nothing

There’s an old adage about having two ears and one mouth. We should listen more than we talk. But the mouth is still there. If you’re listening, you don’t want to seem as if you don’t understand. But, unless the speaker has delivered a thorough proposition covering all eventualities there will more than likely be a valid question raised. A sensible question on a key area of ambiguity actually demonstrates that you have been listening.

It may sound rather twee, but it is as important to listen for what is not said. Spotting the blank spaces where a miscommunication could occur and filling them by asking a question will save time, money and reputation in the long run. Authentic listening builds a relationship and creates a shared understanding. If you listen authentically, each conversation will be clearer than the last and results will improve accordingly.

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Deciding how to decide

Next week people across the UK will make their decision and cast their vote in the General Election. This week, therefore, seems an opportune moment to look at decision making. Don’t be alarmed, this isn’t a party political broadcast, nor is it a self-help article to assist you in making the best decision come the 8th of June. This is a look at how decisions are made in small businesses and start-ups – politics is best left out of it.

That said, politics reveals peoples’ divergent attitudes towards decision making. Many resented the EU referendum last year on the grounds that the public did not necessarily fully appreciate the choice they were making. Issues of such gravity should be decided by politicians who have been thoroughly briefed by experts and elected to make decisions on our behalf, they argued. Others clearly enjoyed the experience of direct consultation, calling for more Scottish and EU referendums to follow the previous ones.

In short, some see decision making as a leader’s responsibility whilst others believe that fully democratic consultation is preferable. Both methods have their merits and neither is perfect. Decision making in a small business can be interesting as they have far more flexibility in how it is managed. Sole traders make sole decisions and large corporations need to have clear leadership structures, but SMEs have the freedom to decide how they decide.

Many businesses are founded by a driven, charismatic individual and, as these businesses grow, a hierarchy is organically created below this individual. Perhaps this is you – if so, you’ll probably be aware of how difficult it is to let go of control and delegate decision making responsibility. Micromanaging is a tough habit to break but delegation will be necessary at some point. The advantages of being a small, agile business can be squandered if all decisions have to filter back to one person.

There are risks within risks if a leader has a monopoly on decision making – most notably when it comes to growing your business and hiring. It is entirely plausible that a business owner, making all decisions themselves will decide to recruit people who won’t challenge their opinions. In much the same way that people’s social media bubbles and echo chambers can detach them from the real world, surrounding oneself with “yes men” or people who are happy to be instructed without offering input can detach your business strategy from where it needs to be – potentially up until a crisis point.

At the other end of the scale you can find start-ups who began as close-knit team endeavours or the work of a couple. From the outset, decision making is not the preserve of a single individual. All decisions are taken together, either unanimously or by a majority vote. This works absolutely perfectly for a start-up starting up. You can probably imagine the difficulties which arise once these businesses start to grow. When a committee becomes too large, any painting commissioned by them is likely to end up being grey.

Whether it’s a group needing to escape a committee format or a single person needing to learn to let go, small businesses need to adapt their decision making systems. The good news is they have the freedom and flexibility to be adaptable.  Who are the key people to delegate responsibility to or elect to be responsible? If you have an IT expert on board, for example, could they be given the final say regarding decisions relating to their field? There is no cookie cutter solution, but it is the ingenious systems which evolve in small businesses which make them fascinating and often game changing. If you have a story to tell about how your business has evolved and adapted to make decisions effectively and efficiently, we’d love to hear from you.

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The Accidental Troll

The ability to create and live through an online persona has been a blessing to some people – a chance to invent oneself anew. Others have used the opportunity to indulge the worst aspects of their personality from behind the perceived safety of anonymity. Your business has an online persona too – how closely does this resemble the real person or people who make up your organisation?

We’re all aware of the internet troll, though the term has departed from its original meaning. Troll has become a noun rather than a verb. Initially to troll was an action, derived from trawl. Instead of dragging a net to catch the most fish, internet users would write a post designed to elicit the largest response. It was, essentially, a game.

The more inflammatory the post, the more people would be drawn in. A post that could set two sides of an already established, contentious issue against one another in online argument has the potential to snowball and draw an ever larger number of people in. Thus trolling became synonymous with posting controversial, even reprehensible opinions.

You might be looking to raise your profile and attract online followers but you’re probably not looking to sow discord and trigger outrage, so how does this relate to your business? They key is the disconnect between the person and the front they put on. The term troll is now applied to those initiating the posts, rather than their actions. Anyone posting offensive material, whether as a device to provoke or as targeted abuse, is now labelled ‘a troll’ – the unifying factor is the fact they hide behind anonymity or a created persona.

Whatever their motivation, the trolls are unlikely to ever post the content that they do under their real name. When ‘troll hunters’ unmask these individuals they are often revealed to be somewhat unlikely offenders – the sort of people who would never dream of saying out loud the things they happily type. Whether they are posting things they do not really believe using the barrier of a screen or using that barrier to write the things they do think but would never admit in real life, it is the barrier which enables them.

Your business has an online presence and the same barrier which gives safety to trolls can serve to mislead your clients. Many will find you (or vet you) online. However you have chosen to present yourself and your business online will set their expectations. If, when you meet, the carbon based life-form sat across from them doesn’t match up to what they had been led to believe online they will be confused or even suspicious.

Just as the trolls seed of discord can grow, so can the seed of doubt planted by inconsistencies with your online business. If the services you’re offering at your meeting are not quite the same as those listed on your website, not only does one alarm bell go off – a whole string of alarms is triggered: ‘If he’s not been entirely accurate about services, can we trust him on costs, timescales, the ability to deliver..?’

If any disconnect between your online and real self is deliberately constructed, it will likely be found out. It is more likely that divergence is accidental and due to out of date or neglected websites and social media channels; or perhaps through an online over eagerness to put every new idea up in public view without considering the realities of how you would deliver them. In any case, consistency is key – consistency across the real and online world and between your various media outlets and social media. The internet allows you to cast a wide net, but ensure that your customers are able to recognise the fisherman.

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Beware the Ides of March? Beware superstition in business.

Your average Roman wouldn’t be particularly troubled by the Ides of March. The phrase certainly wouldn’t fill them with a sense of foreboding or impending doom. It was just a date; one of the three named Roman days: Kalends, Nones and Ides. The Ides of March was therefore merely one of a dozen Ides which occurred in every month of the year – nothing to be afraid of.

Shakespeare’s soothsayer created the sense of menace surrounding the date with his warning to Caesar and it has since become a metaphor for looming disaster. Should this date affect us in any way, shape or form? No – it’s just superstition. However, superstition can affect you and your business… if you let it.

I could explore a range of examples of how superstitions do indeed have a real impact: Hotels losing money due to guests’ refusal to stay on the thirteenth floor, pricing in China playing on people’s preference for the ‘lucky’ number eight, and the lower house prices for those properties which are number thirteen on a street. However, such quirks are covered extensively elsewhere.

Instead, I’m looking at personal superstitions. People well aware that the fifteenth of March is just another day may still own a ‘lucky tie’. Whether it’s dressing a certain way or performing a certain action, we often attribute our success at work to behaviours we adopt. This is not necessarily bad – having a routine or ritual can be positive. But ritual can easily slide into superstition, which is unhelpful.

Consider golfers and their practice swings or fly-halves and their pre-kick shuffling. Both behaviours began as rational triggers designed to initiate muscle memory and achieve metronomic performance. They loosen the muscles, focus the mind and subconsciously channel the hours of practice put in previously. The problem arises when this helpful ritual becomes superstitious and the golfer or player no longer believes they are capable of hitting a good shot or bisecting the posts without their ritual.

It is important to remember that rituals, behaviours or even lucky items are triggers for something else – chemicals altering your mood, making you more relaxed or more positive. If you wore a certain outfit to a successful interview or meeting where you secured a valuable contract, wearing it again will bring back memories and feeling of success. This positive mood may well improve your performance in the next meeting.

But the outfit is not magic. If it becomes lost or ruined you are no less of a performer than before. If you let superstition take hold you will feel that you are somehow diminished without your ‘charm’. As long as you remember that it was the feelings and mind-set induced by the ‘charm’ which gave you a boost, you can find other methods of channelling those feelings.

Psychology makes luck real. More bad news is reported on Friday the thirteenth because people are more inclined to share negative stories on an ‘unlucky’ day. Use this to your advantage if you like – wear clothes with a history of success, look at a treasured photo before a meeting or carry a pebble from a special holiday if they trigger positive thinking. Just remember not to credit clothes, photos or rocks with your own achievements. Remember that these are behaviours designed to induce a psychological result and that there are other ways to achieve that result too. One day the soles will fall off your ‘lucky’ shoes, but you’ll walk just as well without them.

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Reviewing Your Business: The Three Stages

“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.”

Luke (2:1-5)

The Christmas story wouldn’t be the same if it took place in Nazareth General Hospital. The stable, the manger, the shepherds and the wise men all enter into the drama because the census transports the lead characters to Bethlehem. It’s an important feature of the story, but often overlooked. Christmas is likely to be a busy and hectic time for you too, but taking a moment to conduct your own review of your business is an important process.

  • You can recognise what you’ve achieved
  • You can discover how exactly you spent your time
  • You can set yourself goals for next year

Quirinius’ census confuses biblical historians. He was appointed governor in 6AD which was ten years after the end of the reign of Herod – who also features in the story. It could be that the author was confused too. However, it has also been suggested that Quintinius may have been in a senior position before his governorship and may have conducted many censuses prior to the great census passed down from Augustus in Rome. The lesson for us? You don’t have to wait for an external prompt to take stock of where you are.

Obviously the purpose of a Roman census was to register people for tax purposes. That and to monitor public morality (from which we derive censorship). Your own tax register is provided each April by the HMRC. Morality hopefully comes into play when completing this. However, the point is that you don’t need to rerun this in December and whilst profit may well feature, it needn’t be the sole concern – your end of year review can be as broad ranging as you desire it to be.

Your end of year review should be covering two key questions: How did this year go and what can I do better next year? The factors you choose to measure this are entirely up to you. Different criteria will be more relevant to those who set out in order to build a lifestyle business than those building a value business. However, there is as much value in the exercise as can be found in the answers.

A review is psychologically important. Taking a moment to recognise all that you’ve achieved in the last twelve months can bring a real sense of achievement. Big wins can sometimes pass you by because the next challenge has already begun. Taking the time to celebrate your accomplishments is healthy – both for you and your business. Appreciated your achievements will help drive you forward in the future.

A review also allows you to see what you have been doing. Is it what you expected; what you wanted? You can pore over data and metrics as much or as little as you like to discern how successful this work was and how you performed – that’s up to you. The key question for someone who has set up their own business is ‘are you doing the right sort of work’? If you set up your business in order to work from home more often, are you at home? If your business is growing, has your role changed accordingly? Again, this should give you ideas for next year.

Next year is where your review concludes. Based on how this year has gone what do you want to change? If you’re the sort of person who sets New Year’s business resolutions your review is a helpful guide as to what you can change to make your business more profitable, make yourself happier or, hopefully, both.

Thank you for reading these articles throughout the year. I hope they’ve been helpful, or at least entertaining. I wish you a merry Christmas and a Happy (and successful) New Year.



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The importance of precision and how to use it

Precision is everything. When pitching in golf, aiming for the green is a good start – it’s better than hitting and hoping. However, aiming for that precise point on the green from which your ball will roll towards the pin ensures a far better chance of success. A business pitch aimed in the right direction is a good start, but a precision shot on target is always preferable.

There are plenty of good pitches; pitches which not only showcase a business and its features but also explain the benefits a product or service can bring. These are aimed at the green. Where they could be more precise though, is by directly addressing the benefits they offer to the specific needs the potential client has.

A golf hole is marked with a flag and that flag serves as an indicator of where to aim. Whoever is hearing your pitch may well have published a brief, which acts in the exact same way. Of course, if your pitch is delivered at the spur of the moment with no warning – a genuine elevator pitch – you’ll have to think on your feet and react, but in general you should be prepared to answer specific questions before they’re asked.

Unfortunately, success is often the cause of many people’s problems. They prepare something truly spectacular, something with real punch that uses the flag as an indicator and aims for the pin. It’s so good that they then replicate it. And replicate it. And so on…

Professional golfers have good fundamental skills, just as successful pitchers have good fundamental skills in listening and persuasive speaking. However, the golfers know that every course is different and every hole on that course is unique. The technique serves as a base but the shot has to be the perfect one for that place and time.

Your perfect pitch needs to be perfectly tailored for the moment you’re in. This can involve making some tough choices. You may have some key statistics or references which have bowled over audiences in the past. However, if they are not relevant to the people listening now, they need to be jettisoned.

It’s not easy leaving out killer material but, when you’re dealing with an audience whose attention span is likely to be between 20 to 45 seconds, relevance is the real wow factor. If you can demonstrate in that time that you can solve their problems, you’re on to a winner.

For absolute precision, you also need to consider the humans you are pitching to, not just the business they are representing. Do you know anything about them in advance – how good are you at reading them in the moment? If you are able to identify their PRISM profile, you can tailor your pitch specifically to their brain.

A pitch to a predominantly Gold individual should prioritise data and statistics. A predominantly Green individual will be more wowed by creativity and innovation. Pitching to a board will likely mean having to address a number of personality types and require you to cover many bases. For more information on PRISM and using neuroscience to pitch precisely, sign up for one of my monthly workshops.

Aiming for the target is good. Aiming for the bullseye is great. Aiming for the centre of the bullseye is precision. Work on developing sound technique that can be adapted to suit the situation, but remember to adapt! Each pitch will be to a unique person and connecting with that person on a level that will ensure you win business requires precision. Aim for the green, but aim for that perfect spot that gets you next to the pin or, better still, in the hole.

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How Cultural Evolution Eases Growing Pains

Darwin deduced that organisms evolve over time. The same is true of your business. This change might feel strange at first – worrying, even. What if an evolutionary step in the wrong direction puts you on the path to extinction?  

Well, here’s some good news: We’re built to change and grow. In fact, it’s the secret of our success as a species.

People have been trying to apply Darwin’s theory to business since the time of Darwin. It’s never fitted very well – some fit businesses fail and other seemingly weak ones last far longer than anyone expected. But then his theory has never fitted too well with humans in general. We’re weak, slow, soft, squishy and vulnerable yet not only do we survive, we thrive.

Once we developed a suitable brain, our cultural evolution has contributed to our success more than our biological evolution. Human dominance is built on our ability to co-operate as large scale groups. We are able to do this to achieve tangible objectives, like hunting for food; but also for abstract concepts, such as a political ideal or the success of a company.

We’re not ants or bees – we can’t operate as a hive mind – but using small teams working as part of a larger group we can achieve incredible things. Wolves and monkeys can operate in groups but reach a limit where they lose co-ordination and the group size becomes unwieldy and unmanageable. The same would happen to us were it not for our aptitude for teamwork.

Apologies to all your hundreds of Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts, but we can only really hold together a bond with a maximum of 120 people at a time. We can only retain the relevant personal information to operate familiarly with this number. However, groups of this size can co-operate and work together as a block of around 600 to 1000. These larger groups can be co-ordinated together too, and so on. Even the basic social group of 120 is subdivided into groups of roughly 30 who form a closer team and then around 10 core relationships.

Darwin’s theory fits uneasily with humans because we are not as selfish as the majority of the animal kingdom. But, other theories have arisen which help to fill in the picture. Multi-level selection theory explains how we excel at small group co-operation and Gene-culture co-evolution how we bring these groups together to create larger societies (for an explanation of how these work, I highly recommend reading Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind).

All of this should be heartening for the business owner. A growing business, with a strong vision and mission can evolve and grow successfully. New people can join, new teams can take shape and the organisation can expand and still function efficiently because that’s what we’re culturally evolved to do – to work together.

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Technology, Flexibility, Simplicity – Disrupting a Medal Machine

You have to feel sorry for Team GB’s cycling rivals. Well, a little bit sorry. Perhaps not but, for the sake this article, let’s pretend. With the Olympics and Britain’s Olympic success dominating the front and back pages of every newspaper, it seems apt to tie an article in with the national mood. However, despite their phenomenal success in the velodrome, the British track cycling team isn’t going to be ‘case study one’.

Team GB’s track cycling setup is nearly all-powerful. The team is nicknamed ‘The Medal Factory’ and every rider is returning home with at least one piece of Olympic neckwear. They are the established, well-funded, dominant force – which is why their rivals are interesting. From the point of view of the start-ups, disruptors and potential gamechangers of this world, how do you take on a giant?

A new company can’t hope to achieve success just by being a carbon copy of an existing business. Something has to be different or the bigger fish will always win. Team GB’s dominance continued this summer, but there were chinks in the (lycra) armour and inspiration to be taken on how to compete with, and even how to get one over on the big players.

Technology always provides an opportunity. The USA’s technological gamble didn’t pay off, but you can appreciate the concept. Moving the chain to the left-hand side shifted their bikes’ centre of gravity to the inside of the velodrome. It wasn’t enough on the day, but came close to causing an upset and demonstrated how the early adoption of new technology can potentially shift the balance. Early implementation of new software to speed up a system or process, improve internal communication or to reach new customers could bring the edge a company needs.

Flexibility is often the secret weapon of the underdog. On the track, Team GB wore the optimum racing skinsuit. Time and money had been poured into finding the best possible garment. The Italian team that claimed gold in the Omnium recognised that each race of the event took place at a different speed and created a suit for every occasion. With less bureaucracy and fewer moving parts, smaller companies can offer bespoke solutions more easily – offering a tailored service to each client rather than a package.

Simplicity and finer detail can become lost as a company grows. However, as they say in insect numeracy classes, it’s the little things that count. Simple, efficient solutions are another trademark of start-ups. Top of the range skinsuits are all well and good until you stick a very un-aerodynamic safety pin in them to fix on your number. The Netherlands, who took gold in the women’s Keirin, had transparent pouches for their numbers built into their suits.

Coming up against world-leading rivals forces people to start thinking laterally and triggers innovation. Small businesses may not have tech labs and research divisions refining software and kit but have a closer ear to the ground – you may network with somebody developing genuinely new technology. Start-ups are more flexible and can adapt not only to new situations but to the clients’ needs. In a smaller business on a smaller scale, key details and simple solutions do not get lost – they can be seized upon and leveraged to your advantage. Celebrate Team GB’s success, but keep an eye on the competition and what you can learn – subtle improvements can have a disproportionate impact.

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