Team Sky pro cycling team in action in London
PHOTO: Simon Connellan

In July 2019 Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) won the Tour de France for the seventh time in eight years. It’s not that they have one amazing rider: four different team members have topped the podium. The ability to achieve success and then replicate it is what makes it an interesting case study for business too.

When it was formed in 2010, Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford declared they would create the first British winner of the Tour de France within five years. Many in the cycling world scoffed at this. Britain had produced only a handful of elite road cyclists in the past few decades. Italy, France, Belgium, Spain, Germany, the US were all way ahead.

But under Brailsford, Britain had transformed its indoor cycling into an Olympic medal-making machine, and he was convinced he could do the same for a professional road racing team.

Trusting the Data

A characteristic of Brailsford’s approach is an extreme attention to detail. The support team set about collecting as much data as they could about athlete’s performance. For example, every rider’s bicycle has a power meter, and their data is uploaded at the end of each day. If one person has worked beyond their usual capacity, the coaches give them an easier role the following day so they stand a better chance of staying the distance.

In business, there’s ever-more data we can collect about ourselves as employees. Microsoft’s Office 365, for example, has a MyAnalytics dashboard that suggests improvements based on your work patterns. If you work too often out of hours, it will remind you to take some "quiet days."

When Sky rider Chris Froome was defending his Tour de France title in 2018, there were times on mountain climbs when other riders attacked, pulling ahead of him on the steepest parts. Froome didn’t blindly chase but steadily reeled them in: he knew from his training data that he would catch them again. That cool head wasn’t as exciting for sports fans, but luckily business stakeholders care far more about results than the thrill of the process.

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Ignoring the Rules

After a full day of racing, the last thing most people would want to do is cross the finish line and jump on an exercise bike. However, Team Sky made sure that their riders had a cool down session on a static bike so their muscles would recover more quickly. Initially other teams mocked them for it. But the data was there, and now they all do it.

As a business, that willingness to experiment can give an advantage, but only if you also know when to stop the experiment. For example, I see companies that say they are "piloting" a new collaboration system, but they don’t set any criteria for what they want to learn from the pilot or have a clear end point to decide if it will carry on.

Respecting Some Other Rules

Brailsford didn’t get everything right early on. In their first year at the Tour de France the riders were screened off from the public so they didn’t get distracted. This proved highly unpopular: cycling has always been a sport where the crowds got close to the athletes, sometimes even giving them a push on the mountain climbs.

Eventually Brailsford acknowledged that they’d got this part wrong and removed the screens. As in business, sometimes the customer perception should override the purely logical argument.

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Winning Through Marginal Gains

This is probably the most famous idea from Brailsford. The concept of "marginal gains" is you don’t have to win by a transformational change. You can win by the accumulation of several small things, each giving you a few percent advantage. It’s the opposite of many business strategies, that try to back a few moon shots. This is particularly true in a mature market.

In Sky’s case, they made marginal gains from using aerodynamic suits and helmets without vents to reduce wind resistance in time trial stages. Even bottles are color-coded so that support staff know if it is water or isotonic drink inside.

Like laws on trade and tax, there are some rules that everyone has to comply with. At the Tour de France, one rule is that all competitors stay in allocated hotels. These can be surprisingly unglamorous for world-famous sports people. Sky were concerned that rest was vital for recovery over the 21 days of the Tour. Unable to change the hotel, they focussed on what they could control: the gains by bringing a mattress for every athlete, so they knew the bed was comfortable.

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What Business Shouldn’t Copy

Not everything about Sky warrants replication though. When the team was launched they said they had a zero-tolerance drug policy, so when controversy hit them for alleged misuse there was outrage from the media. Some of it was around missing paperwork for a medical exemption. Whatever the truth, for a team famed for its attention to detail this seemed remiss. The lesson for business is if you’re going to take a stand on an issue, all aspects of how you operate need to be to the same high standard and not just the high-profile part — it’s risk-assessment 101.

Even the famous marginal gains isn’t the full story. Tim Harford of the Financial Times argues you need the big changes too: “Long shot innovations open up new territories; marginal improvements colonise them.” Still, there’s much to learn, and it’s more fun than reading case studies about accounting firms.