Out of control… Lessons from the back

This was first published in the Huffington Post on 29th August 2014.

Milking it

As the cardamom flavoured milk was passed to me to try my heart sank. I don’t like the mouth feel of milk and am indifferent to its flavour. I had little choice, I was surrounded by delegates at a workshop in Saudi Arabia where we were testing new juice and dairy products and they were looking at me expectantly.

Feeling out of control

This feeling of helplessness and a sense of lack of control is a factor in so many arenas of life. When we are not sure where we are when driving in a city, we slow down until we feel back in control of where we are. When trying a risky sport for the first time we slow things down whilst we check out what’s happening and satisfy ourselves that it’s going to be ok before continuing. And so it is in business. People talk about change management, but for me, it seems to be far more about control management.

If people are unsure what the consequences are going to be from a change in how the business is working they may well slow down their engagement with that change until they have it figured out. We hear a feeling of loss of control in responses like… “I am going to do ‘X’ as you have asked, but I just have to do these other things first.” In other words – there is always something else that has to be done first.

The obverse is also true – put people in control and things speed up. Once back on familiar roads, you will drive faster with more confidence. Once you’ve done your first abseil, the second is much easier (in fact you’re not sure what all the fuss was about). Once you get a sense of what the business is trying to achieve and how you will be affected – whether that be good or bad – at least you know what’s going on and you feel in control.

On being stoked up

If anything has rammed this lesson home for me it’s riding a tandem bicycle. If you are the person at the front (the Captain), then you are in control of the whole thing. You choose the gears, steer the line on the road, decide when to brake and choose the route taken. The rider at the back (the Stoker) puts in the power and stays nice and relaxed. Generally speaking, the bigger, stronger rider goes on the front. For years I have been the Captain on the bike – until this year. My new riding partner is slightly taller, more powerful and a newbie to riding a tandem. Secretly, I had always thought I could never ride at the back – too much loss of control. But we are training to break a long distance record and it made more sense that we both learnt to be Captain and Stoker.

The feeling of fear and worry beforehand was visceral. I was being Stoker to someone who had hardly ever ridden a tandem but was a very, very fast cyclist, riding an exceptionally fast bike, an Orbit Lightning Tandem. Making a mistake at 40+mph was going to hurt.

My fears were unfounded. We’ve been having a blast. By just our third ride we were up to 80 miles at an impressive average speed – somehow we had managed to get it together really quickly. What had started out as fear turned out to be an unintended master class in coping with change.

Lessons learned

1) We talked lots beforehand

We talked in detail about how we intended to ride the bike, what our approach was going to be to descending at speed, cornering and so on. We would start gently and as our confidence built increase our speed a bit at a time. This helped me feel in control that my riding partner was not about to kill me with some stupid manic riding.

The lesson more broadly is…

Talk about what you are going to do. Understand what fears and concerns people have and debate how you will mitigate these.

2) We reviewed lots as we rode along

When things felt not quite right, such as when we were out of sync in our movements on the bike, we talked about what was happening. We worked out what we needed to do differently and experimented with it until we found what worked. This helped me feel in control because I felt I had a role in what we were doing and that I was being listened to. It allowed me to influence how things needed to be for me as well as for the Captain.

The lesson more broadly is…

Keep talking! Be in touch with your emotions and feelings – if you feel uncomfortable the chances are others do too – so talk about it. Be curious – what’s causing the things that are happening? What could we do differently? Use a bit of trial and error to test different ideas.

3) We didn’t boil the ocean

We’re both enthusiastic amateur cyclists who train hard using a variety of biometric data to improve performance. We abandoned the focus on this data whilst we mastered the bike. As we improved we started to add this data back into the mix. Trying to maintain a specific power level, learn how to descend at speed and understand the subtle differences of gear changes on a tandem compared to a normal bike was simply too much to begin with. Stripping out the data helped me feel in control because I could get my head around the specific piece of performance we were trying to improve. I had the bandwidth to cope.

The lesson more broadly is…

Doing too much at once is overwhelming. If you change an organisation’s structure at the same time as a major IT change how can you possibly know what’s driving the performance experienced? Keep the change manageable and understandable.

4) We whooped and hollered!

Early on when we achieved the ‘sweet spot’ of tandem riding – where the riders are completely in sync, the line on the road is right and both riders are giving it some beans, the result of which is the bike is flying along, we were both buzzing. Later, as we backed off the pace we joked, gossiped and celebrated what we had managed. This gave me a sense of control because it reinforced this was a shared experience and we were in it together for good or bad.

The lesson more broadly is…

That it’s great to be ‘in it together’, so use celebrations, reviews etc as a vehicle for driving in the sense of ‘one team’.

5) We knew why we were doing it all.

We’re not riding a tandem for the hell of it – although that would be reason enough – it’s because we are chasing records. The goal is clear – it justifies all the conversations and the efforts. This helped me stay in control because it helped provide a clear focus and a frame of reference for everything we were doing. There is a point and a purpose that gives you the comfort of knowing where you are and where you need to be.

The lesson more broadly is…

Have a clear and unambiguous goal. Goals work. Have them.

Getting the buzz

The feeling of being in control is incredibly important and powerful in so many ways and in all aspects of our lives. There is a buzz to be had from surfing at the edge of being in control / out of control and this point will vary from one individual to another – it’s what makes improvement exciting. The key is to maintain enough control to enable performance improvement.

So next time someone is resisting what you want to do, ask yourself – how can I help them feel more in control? You may well be surprised at the results you can achieve in thinking in this way.

If you enjoyed reading this article, have a look at “It’s not about change, it’s about control.”