3am Teamwork

Is there a sweeter sound than the rumble of skinny tyres at three in the morning? The noise made by a group of cyclists alone on suburban street, moving at twenty something miles an hour, is a symphony of suffering: the mechanical clunk of Campagnolo gears keeping a constant cadence, Zipp wheels free wheeling for fractions of a second maintaining a steady speed, the rhythmic breathing of fifteen exhausted riders.

Cycling is a team sport. Even in the pro peloton, riders support each other, fierce competitors taking equal turns in the wind, pushing each other on for a hundred miles until finally sprinting to the finish line. The miles and the hills grind into each riderĀ a single shared objective: get to the end as quickly as possible. At this point in the ride, I’m with a group of people who hadn’t met each other 16 hours ago. In those 16 hours we’ve cycled 200 miles with 50 more to go. Very few of us have experienced this level of tiredness. But we’re pushing hard heading towards the next rest stop in just under twenty miles: a hot coffee, crisps, chocolate and white wine flavour crisps from Yorkshire; hoping the sun will rise before our light batteries give up.

Team work is essential. The bikes are moving quickly. There are six inches between my front wheel and the back wheel of the rider in front of me. There’s about a foot between my shoulder and the rider to the right of me. The road is full of pot holes you wouldn’t notice in a car but could easily puncture a 23mm tyre. The occasional car whizzes past not expecting to find cyclists on streets usually deserted at this hour. We’re coping with fatigue while buzzing with adrenaline and a fair bit of caffeine.

Each rider adopts a role. There are riders at the front taking the wind, riders to the right watching for oncoming vehicles, riders to the back ensuring we don’t lose anyone, people talking to keep spirits up, everyone watching for pot holes and constantly communicating about conditions, road furniture, cars and other obstacles. Roles are fluid: the stronger riders spend more time at the front than the rest of us, different people talk at different times depending on how each person feels. The conversation veers from Britain’s Got Talent to what the family is doing; from the quality of the coffee to the benefits of eating lasagne with Stilton at 1am. As one person tires, the group moves around letting him concentrate on grinding out the miles while other riders take up the slack.

In business we tend to adopt the same role day in day out. Fatigue at work is not as obvious as it is when cycling 250 miles; it’s also not shared. If you are having a good time at work you don’t expect other people to be burned out. Work is not a production line (except, of course, for production lines): there’s no rule book that states you must be the ideas person everyday or you must be in charge at all times. Indeed, the theories of situational leadership describe the benefits of allowing different people to lead in different situations. A high performing team needs to flex, it needs to cope with different levels of fatigue or unplanned for events, it needs to take up the slack caused by someone having a bad day, a bit of cold or taking time off sick. The team should surround and protect the team members that grind out the work. Regardless of who gets paid most, roles, including the leadership role, should move around the team as the situation demands. Most of all the team needs a single shared purpose binding it together. If it’s possible to be part of a high performance team at 3am after 200 miles it is certainly possible after a good night’s sleep sat in a comfortable office chair.