Design for Your Strengths PART I
Paul Leinwand, coauthor of Strategy That Works, introduces a counterintuitive lesson in how to achieve breakthrough performance in your organization from Olympic medalist John K. Coyle.
In their efforts to compete, business strategists often forget a basic principle: Build from your strengths. The most successful companies have a clear, well-articulated view of what's important to them and their customers. They understand that the way to win consistently is through what they do rather than what they sell.
These companies also understand that “what they do” is unique to them; they have their own capabilities and practices that no other company could quite duplicate, even if it tried. In that sense, building from your strengths is the most reliable way we have found to differentiate your company.
This advice is easy to state and difficult to follow — not just in business, but in every aspect of human endeavor. Focusing on what you are great at doing is intuitively compelling, but few companies drive their strategy this way. It’s too easy to get caught up in chasing what others do — fixing the inevitably long list of weaknesses in your company, or seeking out what’s new in a world of change.
But when you understand what you’re great at, and design your capabilities and strategy accordingly, you can define how you want to compete, and shape your own future rather than waiting for others to do it for you. John K. Coyle understands this. He has been through grueling challenges to his competitive edge, both in his profession (as a design engineer and consultant) and as an Olympic athlete (in speed skating). As you’ll see, he came out the other side with new triumphs and a sharper understanding of the best way to prepare to compete.
As a senior at Stanford University in 1989, he was passionately interested in mastering two capabilities. The first was design thinking: an influential creative problem-solving method, closely tied to his major in product design (and to the work of management theorist Herbert A. Simon and the IDEOdesign methods, among others). Design thinking involves a continuous cycle of innovation: understanding an issue by gathering data about it, empathizing with the people involved, ideating new approaches, prototyping one or two of them, and then returning to the understanding stage. Practitioners continually revisit and reframe challenges to ensure that they are solving the most relevant problems.
The other capability he wanted to master was speed skating. He was confident he could qualify for a near-term Olympic bid, for the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France. During his senior year at Stanford, while studying full time and training himself — no coach, no training program, and very little ice time — was placed 12th in the world championships for short-track speed skating. He expected that by joining the Olympic team full time, with all the support that entailed, he would soon go from 12th to sixth to first.
He says "Little did I know that my two passions would soon intersect in a way that would teach me the essence of building on my strengths. I would undergo a profoundly humbling experience, in which I would have to treat immense challenges unemotionally, as opportunities to learn and reframe, and to pursue solutions as a design thinker would, with intense passion and unemotional curiosity at the same time.
Most of all, I would have to do the opposite of what others were doing and what most experts were telling me to do. Instead of trying to compensate for or fix my weaknesses, I would have to focus on my natural strengths. This did not feel like the right thing to do at first, and bucking the status quo is never easy, but I now believe it is the only way to truly excel. And, I believe, this counterintuitive lesson is exactly what anyone seeking to build a distinctive capability for a team or enterprise must learn.
I did not know this at the time. But through experiences such as my training in Olympic speed skating, and in my coaching of and working with others, I have come to recognize four key rules inherent in designing for your strengths: (1) accept your weaknesses; (2) recognize your specific strengths; (3) solve the right problem (which is not necessarily the problem other people have diagnosed for you); and (4) double down on your strengths by accentuating the things that make you great. I spent years focused on improving my weaknesses, and in the end that made me a poorer performer. There is far more leverage in designing for your strengths.
1. Accept Your Weaknesses
After graduation, I moved to Colorado Springs to join the U.S. Olympic speed skating team, living and training at the Olympic Training Center. I was full of hope and confidence, excited to work with the best coaches in the world. Upon arrival, I was put through a series of tests known as the SATs of sports. These included a “maximal volume of oxygen” (VO2 max) test, which is said to be the most predictive measure of an athlete’s capability in speed skating. It is an aerobic torture test. You ride a stationary bike and, while you are breathing through a tube, the speed and resistance are ratcheted up until you feel like you are going to die. During my session, I put everything I had into the pedals until I collapsed. I was proud of my effort until I received my results: I had the lowest measured VO2 of the entire team, by a large margin. I had lasted barely 13 minutes. Later that morning, a 17-year-old Lance Armstrong lasted twice as long. According to the prevailing knowledge about the test and the sport, this meant I didn’t really have a shot at being a great speed skater. The current state of knowledge was wrong, of course, but I didn’t know that yet.
All of us — individuals, teams, and organizations — have weaknesses. These are not skill gaps; those can be corrected with learning. Weaknesses are inherent deficiencies of talent or capability that do not change even after aggressive efforts to improve them. Pride and our ingrained work ethic may cause us to deny our weaknesses, but acceptance is the first step toward designing for strength.
Neither the coaches nor I wanted to accept the results of the test. But we had to, especially after I took a second test, the Wingate, or max power test, two days later. On a stationary bike, you pedal as fast as you can for 30 seconds against heavy resistance, while the device tracks your power output. To my surprise, the Wingate results were even more catastrophic: I passed out cold after 18 seconds, falling off the bike and failing to finish. Again, I had the lowest score on the team for average power output, but the data was interesting in one critical respect. For the first 15 seconds, I had an advantage. When analyzed second by second, the data showed that I had in effect a small thermonuclear reactor in each quadriceps. At its peak, five seconds after the start, my anaerobic output registered 1,740 watts per kilogram, the highest peak power of the team by far. (Anaerobic activity uses no oxygen and thus does not affect the cardiovascular system, but it increases muscular strength.)
Unfortunately, given that the shortest event in speed skating took at least 40 seconds, this strength didn’t seem particularly useful. The coaches, after some debate, decided to try to “fix” me as an athlete by focusing on my weaknesses.
“John, you will train harder and longer than anyone else on the team to strengthen your aerobic capacity,” said one of them. “While everyone else does jumps and squats, you’ll be doing 100-mile bike rides and 15-mile endurance runs. In two years, we’ll have you strong enough for the next Olympic Games.”
In making this decision, the Olympic team was “benchmarking” me — a practice as common in sports as it is in business. The best-in-class standard in this case was five-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden. If I wanted to win, they believed, I would have to train like Eric. They said this with conviction and compassion; they wanted only the best for me. Sadly, they skipped the step that design thinkers call empathy. In retrospect, I see that all of us were ignoring the second rule, ...."
CONTINUES IN PART II