Take a lesson from triathletes: Improving your organization's ability to transition between initiatives and changing business conditions can be a major asset. Here's how to get started.
I've been preparing for several triathlon events this summer. As the name suggests, triathlons consist of three legs: swimming, biking, and running, all performed sequentially. Each activity gets plenty of attention, but the part you won't see in the dramatic pictures from the competition is perhaps one of the most important elements of the triathlon— the transition between events.
The transition is the precious pocket of time where athletes change clothing and equipment between swimming and biking, or biking and running. It might not be the most exciting part of a triathlon, but the clock is still running. An extra minute or two spent in transition ultimately impacts your time for the entire event.
For someone like me, who is at a rather lackluster level of fitness, transition can also present an opportunity to shave seconds off the clock that could not otherwise be achieved by swimming, biking, or running faster.
Organizations also require transition times between different events. There may be a transition from developing the business case for a strategic initiative to performing its implementation, or a transition from implementation to ongoing support and improvement. If your organization lacks the resources to acquire extra fitness in core capabilities, refining transition can provide a subset of those benefits without the high cost.
Plan and organize
Walk through the transition area (a defined part of the triathlon course where transitions are performed) and you'll see each athlete has neatly organized his or her gear for each sport. Bikes will be racked with cycling shoes already attached to the pedals, and towels will be laid out to clean feet that might pick up blister-inducing dirt after a swim. Most athletes will set up their transition to avoid forgetting a critical item; for example, by placing sunglasses in a shoe — you're not likely to forget your shoe, so you'll find your sunglasses by necessity. Occasionally you'll see a poorly-organized transition, and if you watch closely, an athlete who looks utterly frazzled as he or she tries to find a piece of gear or change shoes.
IT leaders can use these same techniques as they plan transitions between various stages of an initiative. Instead of waiting until an event is finished to sort out transition, start planning your transitions before even launching the initiative. What resources will you need to facilitate a transition? What people or infrastructure needs to be staged to speed transition times? How can you ensure critical items are not forgotten or overlooked?
Most triathletes practice their transitions to some extent. At a basic level, one might do a brick workout that combines two events, and set up and time their transition as if it were a real race. Some will even spend entire sessions practicing nothing but transition, from high-speed bicycle mounting techniques, to changing out of a wet wetsuit over and over until seconds are shaved from transition times.
Similarly, there's an obvious benefit to testing your own transitions. In many large technology rollouts, a cutover test helps ensure the process for switching to a new system works well. While this is a nice idea, most cutover tests are saved until the last moment, and often focus too much on the technology rather than including the people, processes, and logistics that will support the cutover. Early in your initiative, identify key components of your transition and start refining and practicing. Like a triathlon, you can practice many elements of the transition on day one of your training, and you will often identify early optimizations to the transition process that will further inform and improve your transition abilities.
Practice also reduces stress, both in triathlon and technology initiatives. If you automatically don your visor and know exactly where your running socks are, you can focus on the run ahead—just as if your vendors automatically launch a well-rehearsed support process, and your technology staff prepare their backups to ensure a worry-free launch of a new technology.
While transition may not have the glory of crossing the finish line, if done well it can improve the capabilities of a triathlete or IT organization dramatically.
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