This is the first year that I've followed the Tour de France; I'm not a cyclist (yet) so I've been quite intrigued by the level of teamwork and strategy that is required to win. Thanks to a few informative web sites and a cyclist friend of mine who's patiently answered my questions, I'm developing a huge appreciation for the sport. And of course, I can't help but draw parallels to business.
I'd always thought that cycling was a very individual sport; every man for himself. Yet there's a remarkable amount of teamwork going on... not only within each cycling team, but also among competing cyclists. Turns out that a cyclist conserves 40% of his (or her) energy by riding in another rider’s slipstream (the still air behind a rider.) So a lone cyclist that breaks away from the main pack must expend an enormous amount of energy to stay ahead; conversely, a pack of breakaway cyclists (whether on the same team or competing teams) can more easily maintain an advantage if they work together, each taking turns at the front.
Let's look at 4 cycling scenarios and their equivalents in the business world (and all you cyclists out there, feel free to correct me or add your own thoughts!):
1. The lone rider who can maintain a winning advantage in front of the pack may be the strongest all-around rider or a specialist (like a climber or sprinter) who's gunning for a stage win. So if you’re not the Lance Armstrong in your industry, specialization could be the only way to differentiate yourself and capture a win within a section of the market. This relates to a previous post about being all things to all people: companies that specialize on serving the needs of a specific subgroup have an opportunity to capture a dominant percentage of that audience in both initial purchase and brand loyalty. Case in point: Nextel (from today's NY Times:)
The walkie-talkie service, which is embedded in all of the company's 13.4 million phones, is probably the main reason corporate and government workers make up two-thirds of Nextel's subscribers. Such users account for about a third of other cellular providers' customers, according to analysts.
The walkie-talkie function, it turns out, is well suited to hospital employees, factory floor managers and other workers who need to have short, frequent conversations. So unlike rival companies, Nextel has focused on signing up blue-collar workers by, for example, designing phones sturdy enough to withstand heavy use. The advantages have made the company's customer turnover - the percentage of subscribers who switch to other services - the second lowest in the industry, after Verizon Wireless.
2. Within a given team, you'll find specialists and key lieutenants whose jobs are help the team leader win the overall race… and they all benefit from high visibility and $ winnings if they succeed. In the business world, a ‘team leader’ brand can leverage the strengths of smaller specialty brands to win market share to the benefit of all. Case in point: Target has recruited top designer brands like Todd Oldham and Isaac Mizrahi to differentiate itself from other retailers and escape commoditization (from DSN Retailing Today, 4/04):
When it comes to maintaining Target's reputation for cheap chic, keeping up appearances in apparel is paramount. And the way that this retailer has managed to stay at the top of its game can be summed up in two words: Isaac Mizrahi. With the success of the most extensive designer apparel launch in its history, Target has successfully raised the bar in terms of its assortment's fashion credibility.
Not only has it set itself apart from Wal-Mart and Kmart with this exclusive designer label, it has also differentiated its merchandising offering from mid-tier competitors, including Kohl's and Sears.
3. A world-class rider can’t win unless his equipment is also world-class. If you’ve watched the Lance Chronicles on OLN, you’ve seen how Nike, Trek, Shimano, etc. have all worked together to help Lance win the Tour by making his equipment lighter and faster… and they’ve boosted their own brands' strength in turn. In the business world, best-of-breed strategic partners can apply their strengths behind the scenes to help the ‘team leader’ gain competitive advantage. Case in point: Starbuck's turned to Pepsi for its bottling expertise to roll out its Frappuccino drink, spreading Starbuck's visibility and market penetration beyond its retail stores. For more ideas on this topic, check out The Support Economy by Zuboff & Maxmin.
4. By working together, a handful of competing cyclists can more efficiently maintain distance from the rest of the pack, or to catch up quickly to a group of breakaway riders. Case in point: longtime rivals Microsoft and Sun Microsystems versus the pack of Linux advocates (from USA Today).
Combined, Microsoft and Sun stand a better chance of catching up to the Linux movement and its biggest backer, IBM. Linux, the open-source-code operating system created and improved by volunteers, has become the fastest-growing server software, eating into Sun's core business. It has begun to spread into Microsoft's jealously guarded turf of desktop PCs.
So what teamwork opportunities exist for your company?