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Design for Your Strengths

Jun 24, 2020 | Organization Effectiveness

Paul Leinwand, coauthor of Strategy That Works,  introduces a counterintuitive lesson in how to achieve breakthrough  performance in your organization from Olympic medalist John K. Coyle.

On their efforts to compete, business strategists often forget a basic  principle: Build from your strengths. The most successful companies  have a clear, well-articulated view of what’s important to them and  their customers. They understand that the way to win consistently is  through what they do rather than what they sell.

These companies also understand that “what they do” is unique to  them; they have their own capabilities and practices that no other  company could quite duplicate, even if it tried. In that sense, building  from your strengths is the most reliable way we have found to  differentiate your company.

This advice is easy to state and difficult to follow — not just in  business, but in every aspect of human endeavor. Focusing on what you  are great at doing is intuitively compelling, but few companies drive  their strategy this way. It’s too easy to get caught up in chasing what  others do — fixing the inevitably long list of weaknesses in your  company, or seeking out what’s new in a world of change.

But when you understand what you’re great at, and design your  capabilities and strategy accordingly, you can define how you want to  compete, and shape your own future rather than waiting for others to do  it for you. John K. Coyle understands this. He has been through grueling  challenges to his competitive edge, both in his profession (as a design  engineer and consultant) and as an Olympic athlete (in speed skating).  As you’ll see, he came out the other side with new triumphs and a  sharper understanding of the best way to prepare to compete.

As a senior at Stanford University in 1989, I was passionately  interested in mastering two capabilities. The first was design thinking:  an influential creative problem-solving method, closely tied to my  major in product design (and to the work of management theorist Herbert  A. Simon and the IDEO  design methods, among others). Design thinking involves a continuous  cycle of innovation: understanding an issue by gathering data about it,  empathizing with the people involved, ideating new approaches,  prototyping one or two of them, and then returning to the understanding  stage. Practitioners continually revisit and reframe challenges to  ensure that they are solving the most relevant problems.

The other capability I wanted to master was speed skating. I was  confident I could qualify for a near-term Olympic bid, for the 1992  Winter Games in Albertville, France. During my senior year at Stanford,  while studying full time and training myself — no coach, no training  program, and very little ice time — I had placed 12th in the world  championships for short-track speed skating. I expected that by joining  the Olympic team full time, with all the support that entailed, I would  soon go from 12th to sixth to first.

Little did I know that my two passions would soon intersect in a way  that would teach me the essence of building on my strengths. I would  undergo a profoundly humbling experience, in which I would have to treat  immense challenges unemotionally, as opportunities to learn and  reframe, and to pursue solutions as a design thinker would, with intense  passion and unemotional curiosity at the same time.

Most of all, I would have to do the opposite of what others were  doing and what most experts were telling me to do. Instead of trying to  compensate for or fix my weaknesses, I would have to focus on my natural  strengths. This did not feel like the right thing to do at first, and  bucking the status quo is never easy, but I now believe it is the only  way to truly excel. And, I believe, this counterintuitive lesson is  exactly what anyone seeking to build a distinctive capability for a team  or enterprise must learn.

I did not know this at the time. But through experiences such as my  training in Olympic speed skating, and in my coaching of and working  with others, I have come to recognize four key rules inherent in  designing for your strengths: (1) accept your weaknesses; (2) recognize  your specific strengths; (3) solve the right problem (which is not  necessarily the problem other people have diagnosed for you); and (4)  double down on your strengths by accentuating the things that make you  great. I spent years focused on improving my weaknesses, and in the end  that made me a poorer performer. There is far more leverage in designing  for your strengths.

Accept Your Weaknesses

After graduation, I moved to Colorado Springs to join the U.S.  Olympic speed skating team, living and training at the Olympic Training  Center. I was full of hope and confidence, excited to work with the best  coaches in the world. Upon arrival, I was put through a series of tests  known as the SATs of sports. These included a “maximal volume of  oxygen” (VO2 max) test, which is said to be the most predictive measure  of an athlete’s capability in speed skating. It is an aerobic torture  test. You ride a stationary bike and, while you are breathing through a  tube, the speed and resistance are ratcheted up until you feel like you  are going to die. During my session, I put everything I had into the  pedals until I collapsed. I was proud of my effort until I received my  results: I had the lowest measured VO2 of the entire team, by a large  margin. I had lasted barely 13 minutes. Later that morning, a  17-year-old Lance Armstrong lasted twice as long. According to the  prevailing knowledge about the test and the sport, this meant I didn’t  really have a shot at being a great speed skater. The current state of  knowledge was wrong, of course, but I didn’t know that yet.

All of us — individuals, teams, and organizations — have weaknesses.  These are not skill gaps; those can be corrected with learning.  Weaknesses are inherent deficiencies of talent or capability that do not  change even after aggressive efforts to improve them. Pride and our  ingrained work ethic may cause us to deny our weaknesses, but acceptance  is the first step toward designing for strength.

Neither the coaches nor I wanted to accept the results of the test.  But we had to, especially after I took a second test, the Wingate, or  max power test, two days later. On a stationary bike, you pedal as fast  as you can for 30 seconds against heavy resistance, while the device  tracks your power output. To my surprise, the Wingate results were even  more catastrophic: I passed out cold after 18 seconds, falling off the  bike and failing to finish. Again, I had the lowest score on the team  for average power output, but the data was interesting in one critical  respect. For the first 15 seconds, I had an advantage. When analyzed  second by second, the data showed that I had in effect a small  thermonuclear reactor in each quadriceps. At its peak, five seconds  after the start, my anaerobic output registered 1,740 watts per  kilogram, the highest peak power of the team by far. (Anaerobic activity  uses no oxygen and thus does not affect the cardiovascular system, but  it increases muscular strength.)

Unfortunately, given that the shortest event in speed skating took at  least 40 seconds, this strength didn’t seem particularly useful. The  coaches, after some debate, decided to try to “fix” me as an athlete by  focusing on my weaknesses.

“John, you will train harder and longer than anyone else on the team  to strengthen your aerobic capacity,” said one of them. “While everyone  else does jumps and squats, you’ll be doing 100-mile bike rides and  15-mile endurance runs. In two years, we’ll have you strong enough for  the next Olympic Games.”

In making this decision, the Olympic team was “benchmarking” me — a  practice as common in sports as it is in business. The best-in-class  standard in this case was five-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden.  If I wanted to win, they believed, I would have to train like Eric.  They said this with conviction and compassion; they wanted only the best  for me. Sadly, they skipped the step that design thinkers call empathy.  In retrospect, I see that all of us were ignoring the second rule,  below.

Recognize Your Specific Strengths

Weaknesses tend to be universal and broad. I know this personally; I am essentially terrible at all  hand–eye coordination sports or any event lasting more than a couple of  minutes. But strengths are often extraordinarily specific. My own  strength was a rare gift: 1,740 watts of anaerobic power in short-term  bursts. It was like having a superpower — but it wasn’t clear, in those  training years, exactly what to do with it.

From my earliest days I had been considered fast. Eventually it  became clear I was good only at short events, so I became known as a  sprinter. But I was not good at all short events, only certain  events with an element of leverage or power. I still hadn’t learned  enough about my singular superpower to describe it as precisely as I can  today. I am fast, as a sprinter, in events requiring repeated bursts of  power against resistance, with a short rest, all while balancing and  traveling at high speeds, through a pack of people moving dangerously  fast, and passing them at the last possible second to win. Only a few  sports fit that description. They include short-track speed skating and  velodrome cycling, the only two sports in which I have competed at the  world championship level.

As an individual, or as an enterprise, knowing the specific nature of  your strengths is incredibly important. Perhaps, as an individual, you  are a good communicator. But can you be more specific? For example, are  you best at articulating simple concepts underlying complex topics? As a  narrator of emotionally powerful stories? Or at analyzing facts and  data? Are you better with big audiences? Medium-sized audiences? Small  groups? Videos? Visuals? Or words? Are you better as a facilitator or  one on one? Are you a coach? A challenger? A comedian? Or perhaps a  listener? All of these are implicit in the catch-all term “good  communicator,” but if you don’t know your specific superpower, you can’t  leverage it to full advantage.

Because I didn’t yet understand this, I worked relentlessly for the  next two years on fixing my weaknesses. I spent hours every day focused  on everything I wasn’t good at. This had a couple of unintended  consequences. First, I went from being the 12th-ranked speed skater in  the world to being ranked 34th the following year. Second, despite all  my effort, my VO2 max score failed to improve at all, remaining steady  at 52. Not only did this weakness-focused approach fail to improve what I  was bad at, it also destroyed the only thing I was good at. During that  two-year training period in Colorado Springs, my peak power waned, from  1,740 watts to 1,250 watts. I didn’t even come close to making the U.S.  Olympic team for Albertville. I skated slower at the Olympic Team  Trials than I had in my very first national team trials nearly 10 years  prior, when I was only 13.

Worst of all, I slowly dissolved as a human being. Over those two  years I almost stopped talking. All I did was train, eat, sleep; train,  eat, sleep. When you use all your willpower just to show up every day,  it saps the energy for anything else. I began to feel like the people  who, as Henry David Thoreau put it, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” I  was a failure. I was terrible. I was ready to quit.

The coaches failed to show any empathy for my strengths and  weaknesses, but to their credit, they did not give up on me. They kept  up their refrain, “Keep at it! You’re going to break through! Just keep  going, you can’t quit now!”

But it didn’t make sense. I started to step back, in my own mind, and  wonder: Why was this happening? I used to be good; why was I declining?  How many more years would I have to do this until I broke through? And  at what cost?

Disheartened, I began to withdraw from the established training  regimen. I continued to live with the team, but rebelled against their  weakness-centered training approach. By adjusting my workouts to better  suit my strengths, I mitigated the damages enough to compete in the 1994  Winter Games at Lillehammer, Norway. Although I was not strong enough  to medal in the individual races, I was able to bring home a silver  medal from the 5,000-meter relay. During that period, I began to accept  the fact that I didn’t fit the mold of a champion like Eric Heiden and  that I could never be a strong aerobic athlete. But I didn’t need to be  one to succeed. Only when I realized that, and began to change my life  accordingly, could I move forward.

Solve the Right Problem

A moment of magic accompanies the willingness to quit. It involves  gaining a better perspective. Prior to this moment, it is almost  impossible to be objective about your challenges. Too many emotions and  pressures intrude. But now, you can evaluate your options more  dispassionately, and — in the language of design thinking — learn to ask  better questions. The problem you are trying to solve may not be the  right one to address.

In my case, fixing my weaknesses was the wrong problem to solve. I  have since come to think that the same is true for many other people and  organizations seeking breakthrough performance. Instead of solving for  “how do I fix my weaknesses?” I asked myself, “how can I design for my  unique strengths?”

Back when I was growing up in Detroit, I had a cycling coach named  Mike Walden. He was a remarkable man; despite being only a club-level  coach for the local Wolverine Sports Club, he would ultimately mentor  more than 100 national champions, 10 world champions, eight Olympians,  and five Olympic medalists (I was one of the last group). In 1990, just  two years before I went to Colorado Springs, Walden had been inducted  into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame.

Walden spoke in short, sharp barks: pithy phrases, each with a  specific and deep meaning, custom-tailored for each person’s strengths.  That was how he became one of the greatest coaches of all time. His  repeated advice to me was “Coyle! You gotta finish it at the line!” I  can remember as an 11-year-old thinking, “Well, duh, where else am I  going to finish it?” But what he really meant was “Coyle, you have a  weak aerobic motor, but a great anaerobic engine. You need to time your  sprint to win by a tiny margin right at the line. Go too early,  and you’ll blow up because you have a weak aerobic capacity.” Over the  years, following this advice and perfecting my skill, I had won hundreds  of races by the smallest of margins.

Walden was also known for his signature broadcast, shouted dozens of  times each practice: “Race your strengths! Race your strengths!” Even  after two years of focusing on my weaknesses, I could still hear  Walden’s voice in my head, and after the Lillehammer games, I finally  decided to follow his advice. That meant quitting the team, but not the  sport — and training on my own, doing the opposite of what I had been  told for the previous two years.

On Building Capabilities

After that event, I continued my own form of training. I had high  hopes of bringing home a gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in  Nagano, Japan. But in 1997, I was persuaded to return to the Olympic  Training Center to train with the team once again. The coaches, still  stuck in their mental model of an aerobic athlete, immediately put me on  their old benchmarked approach, and I went along with them. It’s not  unlike a business that innovates a bold new way of doing business, but  after a period of success finds itself slipping back into familiar  patterns, just because it doesn’t have full confidence in its new  approach. But slipping back had devastating effects for me. Not only did  I not bring home a medal in 1998; I failed again to make the team. I  was beyond humiliated and embarrassed. In my mind I had disappointed  everyone who had believed in or invested in me. After the last race at  the Olympic trials in Lake Placid, I got in my car and drove 45 hours  straight to Phoenix, Ariz., to leave the cold behind and start a whole  new life.

Leaving skating was like going through a difficult divorce. Between  1997 and 2006, I had nothing to do with the sport. I gave my silver  medal to my parents and cut off all communications with my skating  friends. I didn’t follow the results or watch skating on TV. I joined a  management consulting firm called Diamond Technology and focused on  design thinking and related work. I married and started a family. With  time, the pain and disappointment faded.

Then, in 2006, I received a phone call from NBC asking me to be the  speed skating analyst for the Olympics coverage in Torino, Italy. I  couldn’t say no, and shortly thereafter I found myself thrust back in  the sport, interviewing the parents, skaters, and coaches to gather  stories to feed to the commentators.

Something happened during that Olympics that changed my life forever.  I was at dinner with the skaters and their parents when one of the  parents pulled me aside to a quiet corner of the restaurant. “John, I  have something important to tell you.” He seemed serious, even nervous.  “I just want you to know that we wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t  for something you did.…” He trailed off.

I was confused. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“You won’t remember, but 12 years ago you brought your silver medal  to a little reception in Bay City, Michigan. You put it around my son  Alex’s neck. He was 11 years old at the time, and the next day he joined  the Bay City Speedskating Club.” His eyes welled up. “And tomorrow,  Alex is skating for a gold medal.”

This changed everything. I experienced a sudden release from years of  feeling like a failure. I got involved again, started coaching the  local clubs, got my daughter started in speed skating, and started  announcing competitions and World Cup events. I also, for the first  time, began talking about my experiences in public.

My biggest failure, just like my biggest weakness, has now become a  source of success. As I share my story, I connect on a human level with  people around the world. People everywhere relate to the narrative of  fighting a system and forging a new path — not for the sake of bucking  the status quo, but because everyone needs to find his or her own  distinctive path to success. It is not easy to know your strengths, and  it is even more difficult to put them to use and build on them. It may  require you to look outside standard approaches to getting things done.  But if you can step back, accept your weaknesses, recognize your  specific strengths, solve the right problems, and design your own way of  winning, you too might find your life has changed. This way of going  through life is not for everyone, perhaps. But neither is the struggle  many of us put ourselves through — the struggle against our own innate  capabilities.

—John K. Coyle

 

 

 

 

Original Article by Strategt+Business  by John K. Coyle/  Paul Leinwand

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