Four Keys to Organizational Sprinting

Apr 08, 2020

It was a wildfire that got me sprinting. Well, kind of.

A few years ago, my wife and I were visiting Banff National Park in Canada with a couple of friends. We headed out early one morning to see what our friends said was an incredible view. It turned out, however, that there was a wildfire in that part of the park, so the road was shut down.

After some coughing and consternation we turned back and decided to go hiking instead. 

On the drive back to our cabin we spotted a sign that said “Waterfall Hike.” We took a quick poll and unanimously decided to check it out. We pulled in, parked the car, and started walking. “Let’s just go a little way up the trail,” someone said. “Maybe to that first overlook.” Then, we got to the first overlook, loved it, and someone else in our group said, “Let’s head to that patch of trees at the end of the lake.” And off we went, energetically moving up the trail.

You can guess what happened. We did an all-day hike, one milestone at a time, all the way to the breath-taking waterfall.

If you’d asked us beforehand if we could handle an all-day hike, we would have turned up the air conditioning in the car and kept driving. But one “sprint” at a time kept our focus.

Business is the same way. I have become increasingly aware of the value of short-term sprints in today’s life and work cycle. For all the talk of long-term perspective, there is value in breaking an all-day hike into a lot of small “sprints” It’s like the old proverb, “How do you eat an elephant?…One bite at a time.” 

In this season of coronavirus, sprinting has been on my mind. Businesses and organizations have had to pivot quickly and hit the ground running. Fast and hard. It’s challenging because the finish line seems to be constantly shifting, which is what makes it all the more important for leaders to take advantage of the benefits of sprinting for their people and set up the guidelines.

Here’s what I mean:

1.) A sprint has a time and energy boundary.

Let’s start with the basics. A sprint means to run fast but not far. In our business application, that means: Define projects and tasks in measurable scopes—a day, a week, a month, or, at most, a quarter. Then, run hard after it. Really hard. Pour in resources (people, money, and time) and tell your team you’re doing this on purpose because there’s a close endpoint.

I have one friend who has re-designed his entire company around monthly sprints. Annual projects are divided into 12 sprints. This allows his team to focus on immediate issues and mentally set aside things that can’t be done yet. Even though the now affects the later, we often spend so much time planning the “later” that we don’t do the “now” with the intensity it requires.

This strategy works for personal productivity as well, of course. One study found that the most productivity among one set of employees was a 52-minute work session followed by a 17-minute break. As for me, when I’m overwhelmed with the size of a project, I often work in 15-minute chunks.

2.) A sprinter needs a lane.

Imagine an Olympic 100 meter sprint where a runner drifts into the neighboring lane. What happens? Runners collide and usually an additional racer or two is taken down as well.

It’s the same way in organizational sprinting. Individual roles must be clear or you run the risk of a pile up.

Communication is paramount at this stage. Don’t just tell people the goal of the project and the length of it. It’s vital that individuals know more details:

  • What’s my role?
  • How does my role fit into the whole?
  • What process should I follow?
  • How are we tracking scores?

Sprinters run best in a lane.

3.) A sprint needs a great start and maintained speed.

In the 1988 Olympics, Ben Johnson defeated Carl Lewis for the gold medal. The thing is, they had the same top speed. One researcher has said, “What set Johnson apart was his superior reaction to the starting gun and his ability to maintain a higher level of speed longer than Lewis.”

Of course, Johnson was busted for using steroids on that run and lost the gold medal, but the principle is still true—sprinting requires fast starts and speed maintenance.

  • Are your people trained for a fast start?
  • Does your organization have stamina?

Then, once you get that momentum and lead, hang onto it. Watch the Ben Johnson/Carl Lewis race as it was on 1988 television. Notice that Johnson has the lead 20 meters into the race and never gives it up.

4.) A sprint requires a refueling.

You can only maintain top speed for so long. Ryan Holmes, the CEO of HootSuite, said, “You can run a sprint and you can run a marathon, but you can’t sprint a marathon.”

That’s why it’s so vital to plan to refuel after an organizational sprint. Don’t run at full speed January 1-31 on a project and expect to start a new sprint February 1. Instead, build in rhythms of hard sprints every other month, for example, with smaller projects in between. Or expect the first week of every month to be a bit slower as you gear up.

Three quick rules:

  1. Stagger the volume and intensity of work if possible to create rhythms.
  2. Make sure people are resting along the way.
  3. Over-communicate the scorecard and updates.

Then, pivot based on your evaluations. If you need to ask for help, go ask for it. If you’re at a wall, what is the way around it? Look at the pieces on the table—staff, resources, capital—and see if anything needs to be reallocated.

But what about long-term perspective?

Let me be clear. When I talk about sprints, I am NOT saying you should ignore long-term perspective. We won’t be in this season forever after all.

On the contrary, the long-term view provides us, even in this season, with accuracy of direction and perspective. It gives us the chance to accurately reflect and to plan things that are bigger than ourselves. That’s why companies like FedEx and non-profit organizations like the Q conference have a vision for 30, 60, or 100 years down the road.

The balance? Look to the long-term and utilize sprints to get you there. You’ll find muscles you didn’t know you had, train muscles you knew about, and get way more accomplished in the process.

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