What Is Your Baton?

by | Leadership, Productivity

I love track and field events. I am captivated by the speed, strategy, and in the case of the relay races, by the collaboration required to pass a baton at record speeds.

But, watching the 4×400 relay race at the 2016 Olympic Games, I couldn’t keep my eyes off all of the runners standing around during the race. I could have cared less about the baton.

What’s interesting when you watch the relay runners is that there are four runners on the team, but only one person is ever running at a time. Everyone else was in some stage of waiting for their turn to grab the baton and run with it.

The winner, the most effective team, is the one that flows the baton through the race and gets it across the finish line first.

Want to know which team will win? Watch the baton.

The baton is the measure of productivity and effectiveness. Always.

In most organizations, productivity is measured in the opposite way. Productivity usually gets measured by how busy everybody is all day long.

Imagine if we applied that kind of thinking to an Olympic level relay race.

If managers, following the typical “productivity = busy” mindset showed up to the track, they might start asking questions like:

  • Why is only one person on the team running while everyone else is standing around?
  • Aren’t we paying people to run here?
  • It looks like some of these runners have a bit of capacity, what else could they be doing while they wait?

That manager might insist that with extra capacity, some of the runners could participate in the long jump event while they wait for their turn on the track.

If an Olympic coach ran their relay team like most managers run capacity management in organizations, they would never win a race.

It’s easy to see the illusion of productivity applied to a team of relay runners. The cost of context switching between running and jumping is huge. Not only would that kind of switching be costly because the energy that’s spent on jumping would no longer be available for running. There would also be a huge mental tax as well. The rules and goals of a long jump are categorically different from the rules and goals of a relay race.

Participating in the long jump while waiting to run in a relay would slow down the athlete’s ability to move the baton forward in the race. The team would never win.

Organizations don’t win this way either.

By focusing more on how busy everyone is than the actual goal, organizations pay attention to the wrong things.

Instead, organizations need to pay attention to their batons and the finish line. Just as relay teams are measured by how effectively they can flow a baton through the race, the ultimate success of any organization is measured by how well they can flow value through their teams.

Take action now:

At your next team meeting, watch a relay race clip. Then, together, answer the questions:

What’s our baton right now?

Where is our finish line?”


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