During the 2006 Winter Olympics, a new event was introduced – the amazing Snowboard Cross – which brought the language, style, and unpredictability of the extreme sports culture as a colourful comparison with the traditional ice white world.
The course is full of jumps, bumps, and huge turns that allow competitors to overtake each other as they fight for first place without pushing or bumping into each other.
The snowboarders compete on their own for the first two runs against the clock with the top 32 going through at which point they race in groups of four, with the top two in each heat surviving until just four are left to contest the final.
It’s a stark contrast to the tactics and approach required for success in many other winter sports including downhill skiing as explained by Graham Bell, a veteran of five Winter Olympics:
“It is so frenetic and you have to think on your feet, you have to look behind you and assess what is going on, decide when is the best time to attempt to pass. The best bet is to get out into the lead and stay out of trouble but that is easier said than done.
“You cannot mentally prepare a good line like in downhill skiing, in this you have to mentally prepare for WHEN IT GOES WRONG.”
This snowboarding philosophy is a wonderful illustration of the difference between traditional text book strategy and unorthodox emergent strategy. The former imagines a planning process that produces a, “perfect line”, to be executed through blind obedience obtained by the carrot and stick while the latter assumes strategy to be something that emerges from diverse places, people, at various times, and for a multitude of reasons,
To paraphrase the conclusions of a superb history of strategy by Hoskin, Macve, & Stone:
“We need to recognise the double paradox which emerges out of the fact that strategy’s great success […] First, strategy will be most successful where the future is like the past but that is when it is most unnecessary; meanwhile, it will be most necessary when the future is different from the past, which is when it will be most useless.
But, second, it will always be most apt at dealing with internal control even though strategic success actually needs control of the external because that is where the enemy/competition lies: and yet that is where strategy proves so easily disproven and overturned, whether by counter-strategy or simply by events.”
To underline the lesson, it is that traditional, annual, planning led, top-down strategy is only useful (1) when the past is the same as the future, and (2) you only need to control internal events to be successful.
If you believe that external events (competitors, customers, markets) have to be influenced, that the future will be different from the past, or that blind obedience is not sufficiently productive then you need some other kind of strategic approach. One that is closer in nature to snowboard cross than downhill skiing.
It also helps if you can get some of the snowboard cultural approach to competing, risk-taking, and relationships – one that finds fun to be as important as winning any particular race and can chat with fellow snowboarders as friends despite national origins or the fact that there can only ever be one gold medal winner.
Take for example Lindsey Jacobellis, world champion snowboarder at only 20 years old, who decided to have fun with a, “backside method grab of the snowboard”, (a cool trick to most of us), when she was half a circuit ahead of the rest in the final - and then fell, allowing someone else to grab the gold.
According to the NBC report, “Sports columnists, television analysts and pretty much anyone over 40 were mortified”, while Seth Wescott, age 29 and the men’s gold medalist in the snowboard cross, explained, “It was good that she got carried away It would have been a shame if she didn’t.”
Jacobellis pointed out that she was, “just having fun with the sport”.
Others complained, like Rick Morrissey, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, saying (without a trace of irony), “It probably would be a good thing if somebody explained to the snowboarders that once they decided to sit at the adults’ table, they made the tacit agreement to play to win. They made the decision to act like Olympians, which now means to act professional.”
Funny considering that the Olympic Ideal was Amateurism in its finest sense.
Jacobellis wore her silver medal proudly and said, “I think it’s silly for athletes to look at a sport as a way to get better deals and endorsements. It’s about the love of the sport.”
She, along with her competitors, joined the sport for its beauty, for the challenge, and for the vibe. That’s why it’s great to watch and why the standard keeps getting better and better.
When most companies are ahead they choose to down-hill. They pick a line, they pick fast, long skis and seek efficiency and speed. When successful competitors make any headway against them, they have to adapt, take risks, and choose boards or skis that allow movement, even tricks to get ahead. They have to play to prepare for whatever will happen next.
So Google have an online video service ready to compete with Apple because they let a team put one into operation as an experiment (just having fun – like Lindsey Jacobellis) where Sony had nothing because they want to have a 100 year plan for everything before they are willing to make a move (the play station has been the only exception and that only came about because one lone engineer fought for the right to do it).
And when GM (which recently required bailouts) were ahead of the pack in terms of cars manufactured (and sold) they were willing to just take the obvious line until cooler competitors like Toyota and Honda carried on improving (everyday, whether the customers complained or not!) all the way to victory because they are proud of making things better just because of the challenge – that’s why they joined the industry – they loved engineering and they loved cars.
Take a look at every market leader that loses its way and you see a company that has picked a line, stopped adapting, and stopped getting “carried away”.
The realists, the penny pinchers, and the cream stealers end up in charge because the corporation has become fat enough to allow their kind of clunky strategy based on what worked last year (only more of the same) and defence of the status quo (internal control of rival ideas) to keep them in clover and company jets.
They win arguments based on some pretence at, “sitting at the adult’s table”, and, “acting professional”, rather than wanting to learn, and grow, and deliver.
What Jacobellis said and did was funny, it was honest, and showed the kind of attitude that allows learning that is at the heart of effective strategy today. Gnarly.
(This is a draft excerpt from Adaptability by Max Mckeown)