“It’s one of the easiest things in the world for everyone to be 1% better at their job today than they were yesterday,” according to Fran Millar, director of business operations and head of winning behaviours at Team Sky.
Speaking at The Productivity Summit, Millar shared the journey that Britain's cycling team has been on from having only won one gold medal in 76 years, to creating a culture of winning behaviours and becoming the most successful Olympic GB team ever produced.
“Cycling had an endemic problem with doping. Everyone on the international stage in '98 to the early-2000s was doping and anyone who says they weren’t is lying,” she stated.
Additionally, “no British team had ever won the Tour de France”, and the idea of being able to do that “was bonkers at the time”.
Team Sky focused on a number of principles to build and maintain success, including: an outcome focus, podium people, marginal gains, CORE (commitment, ownership, responsibility and excellence), culture, and winning behaviour.
There was a need to “find that extra 10% from somewhere else as we were not going to cheat”, explained Millar, explaining that Team Sky turned its attention to the notion that all employees can make marginal gains to their performance.
This involved breaking everything down to find where marginal gains could be made. Millar gave the example of Team Sky cleaning the hotel rooms riders used on their race routes to hospital standards, and putting in their own mattresses, blackout blinds and pillows to create more comfortable environments.
“Can we guarantee that a good night’s sleep will improve performance? No. But could it be a marginal gain compared to someone that has a bad night’s sleep? Yes, so let’s do it,” she said.
On an individual level this means being 1% better at your job every day, she added: “I say to everyone in the organisation – whether in the office or a race – how are you going to be 1% better at your job today?”
On being outcomes focused, Millar spoke of the importance of knowing what success looks like as a team.
“If you don’t then there’s no point in starting,” she said. “We know exactly what success looks like – not just the end podium but every step of the way to success.”
For the Tour de France this involves breaking down every element of success required and putting in milestones along the way to monitor progress. This applies to all employees, not just athletes, Millar added: “Everyone has a set of objectives and knows the steps along the way to get themselves there.”
Millar went on to explain the importance of creating “podium people”; encouraging employees in every role to aim to be the world best at their jobs.
While this focus involved the controversial move to drop around 50% of cyclists that would not be capable of winning the team medals, Millar said it was about shifting from a mentality of wanting just “world-class people” to wanting “only winners”.
“The journey began to get everyone to determine what best in the world looks like to them,” she said, which included “mechanics, nutritionists and coaches… to know what the best people in the world at their jobs are doing to be the best and then benchmarking themselves to become a podium person”.
“The most important thing is I want them to want to be the best, understand what best is and how to get there, and be willing to put in the work to get there.”
Millar also pointed to psychologist Steve Peters’ chimp paradox model, which he helped apply to Team Sky. The model looks at the complexity of the human mind, identifying the three key areas of the brain: the limbic system (the primal part of the brain or ‘chimp’), the frontal lobe (the ‘human’) and the parietal (the ‘computer’).
“The chimp is where information goes first when it enters the brain… so if you’ve had a bad week and send an angry email it’s the chimp that sent it,” she explained.
The idea is that it’s important everyone understands how their chimp responds so people know both their own behaviours and their team members’ behaviours and "how to act with each other”.
“If you can understand [an action] is the person’s chimp then you can get more out of them and also understand that it can take over people,” said Millar. “The reason we use this model is if you’re in a high-pressure situation or in a team for weeks on a bike race, something that doesn’t bother you usually… [for example] ‘the way you eat breakfast can annoy me’ we say ‘my chimp is out’.”
“It’s a safe way to explain [it] and no-one gets angry.”
Millar went on to share the lessons the organisation learned about the importance of culture. “We never used to speak about culture; culture is important but more important is winning so it was always about learning how to win first,” she explained, adding that this changed in 2013 when athletes Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome “hated each other and refused to ride with each other”.
“Both had staff saying ‘I’m team Wiggins’ or ‘I’m team Froome’ and I said ‘actually you’re Team Sky’ so we had to talk about that.”
To create a culture of winning behaviour it’s more important to identify the “losing bit” than the “winning bit”, Millar added.
“If you have 10 people in a team exhibiting winning behaviour then great but the chances are you will have one or two people exhibiting losing behaviour and that’s more damaging,” she said. “If you let that behaviour become endemic the organisation will fail as it spreads like wildfire.” To turn losing behaviour into winning behaviour Millar encouraged organisations to focus on a number of key aspects: self, team, performance first, continuous improvement, and communication.
Millar added: “Excellence is only good if you can demonstrate you’ve done it in the right way.”