Discretionary Effort – Insights from the business of cycling

This was first published in HR Bullets on 4th July 2014.

The security team faced a choice, overtake the hapless cyclist at the back to get behind their man or watch as the gap between the two riders grew. Having an armed security team is not a requirement for many of us when out riding our bikes, but if you are a senior business leader in South America, it’s a way of life. Just a few weeks previous to this, they had extracted a 0.38 calibre bullet from a colleague’s car. The threat to life and limb was very real.

Or what about the Global Sales Director based in Detroit, who faced with a choice of being ridden off the road by cycle hating motorists was restricted to a 25km section of road that he ended up riding again and again and again in order to get fit?

Perhaps we should take a moment to consider the level of motivation it took a European Business Development Director to recover from being run over by a car suffering multiple fractures to various significant bones in his body to getting fit enough to be able to join 11 other cyclists on a 525km 2.5 day epic bike ride from Paris to Geneva.

Every single one of the 12 riders, most of whom are senior business leaders with challenging and hectic work schedules involving much travel had an epic story to tell about training for this adventure. And yet, somehow, in spite of all the problems, they were able to get themselves fit enough to complete the challenge.

Discretionary effort

The Holy Grail in terms of employee engagement in business is discretionary effort. This is the work someone is prepared to put in over and above what might reasonably be expected. In comparison, to achieve what these 12 riders achieved given their personal circumstances is an incredible level of discretionary effort. It would have been very reasonable and understandable for every single one of them to send an email pulling out of the ride. They didn’t.


What was it about this trip that was so compelling to drive them to overcome all these barriers enabling them to complete the challenge in fine style? I sent out an electronic survey. What emerged can be distilled into a recipe for great challenges – challenges that motivate people to overcome incredible odds. The value of the recipe is that if we can replicate the principles in business or indeed any circumstance where we wish people to excel, then there will be a greater chance we can succeed. Here are five of the ingredients.

It has to be scary

As one person said “I like to have a challenge that I say yes to and then think ‘my God, what have I agreed to?’” This captures the essence of the right sort of goal. At the outset it’s just about possible to imagine doing it but it’s by no means certain. The right goal creates an emotional response – you can feel the excitement of the possibility of achieving it but at the same time the fear associated with the scale of the challenge.

A story to tell

A great goal will deliver great stories and lasting memories. The test seems to be:

• Can you imagine yourself feeing a sense of pride and pleasure from success?
• Can you imagine yourself telling others about the journey of achieving the goal?

If the answer is “yes” it’s a great goal.

It has to be doable

It’s fine having a crazy goal, but if there is no hope of doing what’s required to achieve the goal then there is no point in starting. It has to be ‘do-able’. Given the context in which many of the riders were training ‘do-able’ doesn’t mean realistic, it seems to mean: “If I get really focused and make some tough decisions I will be able to carve out the time to do what I need to do, but it’s not going to be easy.” For some this meant out training by 5am, or hours riding the same section of road, or being followed by a security team the whole time.

Confidence in others

Understandably, given the effort that was required, for many it was essential that they had faith that the rest of the team would be doing the necessary work to make sure all the logistics were sorted and robust contingency plans in place. To go to all that effort and be let down by something that could have been sorted in advance was simply unacceptable. The belief in the team was critical as it allowed them to focus on what they had to do. The trust had been earned through prior experience of the organising team.

Demanding expectations

Whilst the intention in the missives the organising team sent out was to ensure people really understood the size of the challenge, the way they were interpreted was as a non-negotiable. “You need to work hard to be able to do this”. This partly drove a sense of fear about the challenge but also a sense of motivation to get out there and train. Demanding hard work was somewhat surprisingly seen as positive.

A sense of community

There was a real fear from the organising team that regular email updates keeping people informed of what others were doing and the challenges they were facing would be seen as an irritant or worse, as junk mail. It turns out that these updates helped people feel part of the community of riders preparing for the trip. As it was described by one rider, when you are thousands of miles from other riders, knowing they are at times struggling or seeing some of the pictures of them out and about helps one feel connected. Whilst not everyone actively engaged in the correspondence, it seems everyone read it and was motivated by it

And so….

Given these lessons, we have part of the recipe for great goals. The inescapable conclusion is that a challenge like Paris to Geneva for these guys is no longer good enough. Clearly hatching the right goal is something that has to be very carefully thought through, as it’s the seed that sparks the performance.

Dominic Irvine © Epiphanies LLP 2014 All rights asserted