On triathlons and IT management

Patrick Gray has been considering the similarities between training for a triathlon and effective, strategic IT management and discovered there are a surprising number of parallels.

I have been training for a triathlon for the past few months; a recent stop in my long journey from someone who could not run a mile, to having several half marathons under my belt and preparations well under way for a June triathlon. Perhaps too much swallowed pool water is to blame, but I have been considering the similarities between training for a triathlon and effective, strategic IT management and discovered there are a surprising number of parallels.

It's really not the technology

Triathlons are a gadget geek's dream, with all manner of esoteric materials involved, from Kevlar to carbon fiber being used in the equipment, to the latest GPS and heart-monitoring technology tracking performance. Triathlon bicycles are buzzword-laden wundermachines, and even lowly running shoes and shorts detail performance features and material properties that would have physicists scratching their heads.

While all this stokes the flames of equipment lust, and despite manufacturer's claims of "peak performance," once one writes an appropriately large check, the technology does little without the requisite hours of old-fashioned training and conditioning. While the "weight-saving polymers" may shave seconds off one's time during a run, they will never match months of pounding the pavement. The athlete in discount store trainers, worn thin from miles of training runs, will always beat the person who sits on the couch, despite the latest in performance footwear.

As with a high-performing IT organization, the technology does come in to play once a high level of "fitness" is established and enables one to gain a slight competitive advantage atop years of development and strengthening. If your IT shop is struggling to keep the email system running, then all the management "solutions" and shiny new methodologies are just as incongruous as me astride a $12,000 cutting-edge time-trial cycle at this point in my athletic development. Similarly, many business problems require good old-fashioned process improvement, reengineering, and careful evolution rather than the latest and greatest vendor-provided technology.

The clock is still running during transitions

For me, a new dimension to multisport events is the transition, the area where the athlete changes equipment as he or she goes from swimming to cycling, and cycling to running. The most experienced athletes carefully lay out their equipment and actually practice the mundane aspects of the transition from changing shoes, to the most efficient way to mount and dismount the bicycle. While the transition seems like a minor portion of the event, at a recent duathlon (a run, bike, run event) my transitions were well over a minute, while the best were under 30 seconds. Trimming two minutes off one's overall time could be the difference between a podium finish and a dozen slots back in the pack.

Most businesses go through significant transitional periods, as most of us who have experienced the last three years can attest. Strategies and budgets at some organizations changed shockingly and rapidly, and many IT leaders were caught completely off-guard: either applying a boom-time mentality for too long or cutting so rapidly and chaotically that their organizations were decimated and incapable, rather than lean and mean.

Mentally rehearsing transitions is a good practice whether for triathlons or IT management. The economy will likely make another rapid swing (hopefully for the better), or external factors like an acquisition or industry change will force you to adapt to new rules of the game with little time and little sympathy for laggards. Even a change in a single individual, the CEO, could take IT from a quiet and unmolested utility role, to a star player subjected to all the glories and trials a place in the spotlight demands. In any event, like a triathlon, the clock is still running during these transitions, and it always favors those who have prepared.

Keep learning

As I have evolved as a runner over the past few years, I have learned various nuances to improve my performance. Subtleties from stretches and different workouts, to how I carry my arms and hands to avoid soreness during a long run have gradually improved my running, and I expect to learn new "tricks of the trade" as a neophyte cyclist and swimmer. I chuckle at some of my early mistakes, but like any activity, those mistakes are part of the learning process, and it is unfair to punish yourself for what you didn't know.

That said, in addition to the rudiments of training, seeking guidance from experts can spark improvement that much more quickly. Just as with athletics, don't be afraid to let your "gut be your guide." When your organization is functioning well but you have a nagging feeling it could be improved, there is no shame in seeking outside guidance for new techniques that might bring about subtle refinement or a major change in your capabilities. While the organization stuck in the depths of malaise is usually easy to spot, the IT shop that is stuck in a rut of "good enough" can be just as taxing to an organization.

Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.