How do you improve performance? By improving the method

Posted on March 12, 2021

Dick Fosbury’s high jump attempt in the Mexico City 1968 Olympics was so unusual the Los Angeles Time wrote that “he goes over the bar like a guy being pushed out of a 30-storey window”. The Medford Mail-Tribune ran a photo captioned “Fosbury Flops Over Bar”. The strange new technique, now known as the “Fosbury Flop”, won him gold and set a new record at 2.24m.

Less than a decade later, on 10th June 1976, Aleksandr Baryshnikov grabbed the world’s attention when he threw his shot put whilst spinning rather than the orthodox “glide” method. His new technique, now referred to as “the spin”, allowed him to break the 22m mark and claim a new world record.

In both of these stories athletes, along with their coaches, developed and perfected new methods for their sport which enabled them to reach new levels of performance. From those moments future athletes chances at medals came down to their ability to perform the new methods. To this day to be a high jumper you must perfect the flop technique. To be a shot putter you must master the spin.

Finsbury and Baryshnikov broke records not just because they were great athletes. Their methods are difficult to master and pull off. What made them great athletes was the ability to perfect a great method which they could execute consistently and reliably again and again. Not just on the day of the competition when they have to perform.

Both these stories demonstrate a truth. That the quality of the method dictates the quality of the product. And the quality of the product dictates the performance.

In a business context this still holds true. When you buy a cup of coffee from your favourite barista it is the quality of the product you purchase. As every coffee aficionado knows the method, from roasting to grinding to brewing to extraction, is critical to the quality of the end product.

If you have mastered the method enough to produce consistently good coffee at the right price point, then you have a good chance of making money. If your method is poor or inconsistent then your product will suffer and so will your revenue.

In reality there are many more variables that go into producing a product that performs. And the same is true for an athlete. Training, nutrition, psychology, equipment, clothing, biomechanics, genetics etc. All of these variables are part of the overall method which produce a medal winning athlete. Just as branding, price point, convenience etc. are part of the overall method for creating a consistently performing coffee shop.

Improve the method to improve the product

During the inaugural 1896 Athens Olympics Ellery Clark took gold medal with a jump height of 1.81 metres. Robert Garrett took gold in shot put with 11.22m throw. Both Fosbury and Baryshnikov records (2.24m and 22m) make those early attempts look pitiful.

Today’s results show even greater progression. Javier Sotomayor holds men’s high jump record with 2.45m and Stefka Kostadinova women’s with 2.09m. Randy Barnes and Natalya Lisovskaya hold the men and women’s shot put records with 23.12m and 22.63m throws.

Even outside of elite sports, the records of early elite olympians are easily surpassed by amateurs. In the London 2019 Marathon over 3160 runners, mainly amateurs of various ages and genders, out ran Spyridon Louis’ Athen’s gold medal equivalent of 3:08:38. The four minute mile mark was first broken by Roger Bannister in 1954 but now is a standard achievement for today’s top club runners.

How can we go from a throw of 11.22m to 23.12m in less than a century? How can race times once the pinnacle of human achievement be open to every day runners? Evolution hasn’t allowed such a dramatic change in human biology. What has changed to increase human performance so considerably?

When four time Olympic medal winner Sebastian Coe was asked about the same question he explained “He [Bannister] was running on 28 training miles a week [modern runners do at least 100]. He did it on limited scientific knowledge, with leather shoes in which the spikes alone probably weighed more than the tissue-thin shoes today, on tracks at which speedway riders would turn up their noses.”.

Coe tells us clearly what has changed. The method. Whether improvements in equipment or improvements to training regimes informed by increased scientific understanding of human performance, nutrition, biomechanics, physiology and injury prevention.

Improvement in the method has led to improvement in the athletes which has led to improvement in the performance.

Again this holds true in business. Netflix shifted from mailing people DVDs to online streaming. This improvement in the method not only allowed them to dominate the market but also put Blockbuster, who stuck to physical products in bricks and mortar stores, out of business. As Richard Rumelt explains in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy Walmart challenged fundamental constraints around store size by using a regional distribution network with smaller stores backed by data driven logistics models and info systems. Kmart stuck to the old model of large discount stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2002.

In both cases an improved method displaced the status quo. Just as Fosbury’s flop displaced the straddle technique.

These are drastic improvements in method. Yet there are also the continuous small improvements accumulate to create huge gains over time.

In the 2010s one team dominated cycling like no other and is regarded as the most successful team in cycling history. The British Cycling team. Yet in the previous century they had achieved only one gold medal and not a single win in any major event.

How did they go from such a pitiful record to dominating the sport? How did they go from one medal in a hundred years to 178 world championships, 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals, 5 Tour de France victories, and nine Olympic records and seven world records in less than a decade?

In 2003 British Cycling governing body hired Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. He described his strategy as “the aggregation of marginal gains”.

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”.

And the team did look at everything from the obvious to the unusual. Saddles, tyre grip, massage gels, sleep quality, bike comfort, how different fabrics affected body temperature, hand washing to reduce lost training time due to illness. Anything which could yield an improvement, no matter how small, was up for experimentation.

This philosophy of small improvements are also seen in the business world too. Companies such as IKEA and Toyota have created cultures of Continuous Improvement as have new players such as Amazon and Google.

All of these stories demonstrate a truth. That improvement in the method dictates improvement in the product which dictates improvement in performance.

Harming the method harms the product

Lance Armstrong was known as one of the world’s greatest athletes and had won the Tour de France a record seven consecutive times. In October 2012 the United States Anti-Doping Agency charged Lance Armstrong with drugs doping. It stripped him of all his achievements from August 1998 onward, including his seven Tour de France titles. They also gave him a life time ban terminating his once glorious cycling career.

In the 1988 Seoul Olympics Ben Johnson won gold for 100m sprint and broke the world record. Three days later he was disqualified for steroid use and suspended for three years.

In December 2019 the World Anti-Doping Agency extended an existing 2015 ban on Russia and its athletes from entering all major sporting events for an additional four years. This includes the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Russia was found guilty of both systemic doping, which Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said was “impossible to deny” and manipulating laboratory data to avoid detection.

In all of these cases, pressure to perform pushed athletes and teams to corrupt their method through the use of banned substances. The result was their disqualification as athletes and any achievements and records of their performance stripped.

Decline in the method led to decline in the product led to decline in the performance.

On March 10th 2019 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashes six minute after take off. It is the second fatal accident involving a Boeing 737 MAX in five months leading to the deaths of 346 people. The next day China announces that it is grounding all Boeing 737 MAX planes. Within days the rest of the world followed resulting in the longest ever grounding of a U.S. airliner.

Investigations faulted aircraft design and certification lapses and Boeing was charged with fraud, settling to pay over $2.5 billion. During the investigation a number of emails between Boeing employees were highlighted including one exchange which said “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”. In other emails employees spoke of their frustration with the company’s culture, complaining about the drive to find the cheapest suppliers and “impossible schedules”. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure said the emails, “paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews, and the flying public, even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally,”

In just two days $11 billion was wiped off of Boeing’s valuation.

In a recent interview Emirates airline president Sir Tim Clark joined many others in blaming Boeing’s woes on an aggressive focus on shareholder returns which corrupted Boeings’ engineering culture. Clark made clear that “The relationships that airlines have with the likes of Boeing will be conditioned by what the see they are doing to sort out their internal problems”.

Put simply Clark was saying if we can’t trust your method we can’t trust your product.

What is the difference between Boeing or Armstrong or Johnson or Russia? They all sacrificed quality of the method under pressure to deliver high performance. The result was a threat to their very survival.

Decline in the method results in decline in the product which results in decline in the financial performance.

Focus on the method

What is the one thing you should takeaway from this? It is simple. If you want to improve performance, whether that is as an athlete or a writer or a software delivery team or an educational institution or public body or as a product or service business, then you must focus on your method.

Without a quality method in place there is no chance that you will produce the right product and there is no chance you will perform.

Of course there are elements of reductivism to this argument. Defining quality of the method is not simple. We have to define the method’s product in some sort of meaningful way first. Then we need to work back to see if it is fit for purpose.

Plus the world is far more complex and there are many variables, most of which are outside of our control (such as chance), will directly effect performance. Simply improving the method is not enough to guarantee success.

However, what is inside our control is the method. And by focusing on ensuring that it is fit for the product we are trying to produce we can substantially increase our chances of success.