Lessons on strategy from riding a bike

Photo by Dovile Ramoskaite on Unsplash

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving”

Albert Einstein

Riding a bike is something I’ve been doing since I was very young. It’s still something I do by choice to simply get around the place when the weather and time permit, and I enjoy it as a way of getting exercise by taking long rides along the river trails or, occasionally, up the hills around where I live.

As I was out on my bike yesterday my mind wandered back to when I learned to ride, and some of the lessons that enabled me to finally achieve my goal. As I was navigating my way along a rough part of the riverbank journey, I reflected on the turbulence we’re all experiencing at the moment, particularly in our education system, and how those simple lessons from learning to ride a bike may be useful to us now.

Here are just a couple of those lessons together with some implications for how we might use these lessons to inform our approach as leaders…

LESSON 1: Keep your eyes up and always look ahead instead of down

The first piece of advice I recall which, at the time seemed counter-intuitive, but in the long run proved really effective. I was trying so hard to focus on keeping my balance and ride in a straight line, my eyes fixed completely on the front wheel and my hands making repeated adjustments to the direction of travel as the wheel swerved one way then the other. No matter how hard I tried I never seemed to be able to stay ‘true’ to the line I was trying to follow.

It was my mother, patiently standing behind me on my bike, who suggested that, instead of focusing on the wheel in front of me, I fix my gaze on the point ahead – the place I was intending to travel to. Despite initially thinking that was a crazy idea, and that I’d lose the focus on my wheel and where I needed to steer, I followed his advice.

The change was instantaneous! Instead of swerving all over the place as a result of the constantly ‘over-compensating’ movement of the handlebars, I was able to ride with more confidence in a straight line towards the place I was looking ahead to.

It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me as I’ve continued to “ride my bike” through my life – but has also resonated as a key life lesson when it comes to pursuing my goals and longer term objectives – and for those in leadership, charged with helping ‘steer the organisational bike’ if you like.

As individuals it is very easy to become focused on the wheel in front of us, instead of holding our head up and keeping eyes fixed on the road ahead. This is particularly true when we’re faced with uncertainty and disruption such as we’re all facing currently. It brings about a sense of panic, an urgency of focus on the ‘now’, driven by the demands of the seemingly insurmountable problems threatening the basis of the things that familiar to us and within which we are able to operate with comfort.

I’ve recognised this in many settings recently – from school settings where principals and staff are so busy focusing on ’emergency measures’ that they no longer have time any the ‘big picture’ or strategic thinking, through to our political leaders calling for a time to ‘take stock’ and allow time for some relief from the relentless pressures we’re facing.

All of this I completely understand. There’s a feeling of exhaustion across almost every part of our society at present – so it makes sense to create space for our wellbeing and ensure we take time to care for ourselves and those around us.

But we can’t afford to ride the bike for long by simply looking at the front wheel as sooner or later we’ll find ourselves becoming incredibly wobbly, over-compensating when obstacles appear unexpectedly and eventually falling over because we’ve become completely un-balanced.

This is where leaders need to step up and ensure they have their eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead, and that they convey a sense of purpose, direction and hope in those who are with them on the journey, even if at the time the only focus those people can have is the wheel before them.

Just like learning to ride a bike, lifting your head to view the road ahead when everything in your being is telling you to look down at the wheel can be a challenging exercise – but it is so important! And for the experienced cyclist, looking to the road ahead is common practice, and the thought of looking down at the front tyre as you ride an act inviting almost certain disaster.

So… just like the youngster learning to ride a bike, we have to overcome the tendency to absorb our minds with a focus on the front wheel. With our head up and a clear-ish picture of the road ahead, we’re in a far better position to anticipate the corners, potholes and stones on the road, and our reflexes will ensure the front wheel is turned just enough to navigate through or around these things, and not veer so wildly that we’re thrown off balance and fall off.

LESSON 2: The physics of cycling makes it easier to stay upright when you’re going faster

In the process of learning to ride a bike there is a certain point where you realise how fruitless it is to keep trying to get onto the saddle, grip the handlebars and place feet on the pedals before starting to move forward. I still have memories of my own experience in learning to ride, over and over I persisted in trying to first get myself positioned on the saddle with everything in place before starting to move forward. Like lesson #1, this seems counter-intuitive, but the fact is that the forward motion is actually what enables us to find our balance and succeed in maintaining the appropriate posture for riding. Without the forward momentum we’ll inevitably fall over.

Further, as we experience the success of doing this, and as our confidence grows, we discover that the faster we go, the more control we actually have to navigate the sudden twists and turns or rugged terrain we’re travelling on. Of course, there’s a limit to just how fast you can go which correlates directly to the amount of experience and confidence you have gained.

From a strategic perspective, speed isn’t about being hasty and progressing with reckless abandonment, it’s about having the thinking, processes and systems in place that allow your organisation to progress with speed, while at the same time allowing time for reflection, relaxation and recovery along the way.

It’s these things that provide the forward momentum in any organisation and ensure it is travelling forward rather than slowing down – which so often occurs during times of disruption and the uncertainty that this causes.

Without the confidence the members of an orgnisation have in their collective vision and the processes, systems and structures that support that, eyes will inevitably focus more on the front wheel than on the horizon.

The point here is that strategic speed isn’t about reckless abandonment and going flat out – think more about a long distance cycle race than a downhill mountain bike event. It’s about having the things in place that will ensure strategic speed – the momentum toward strategic goals – is maintained, instead of wearing everyone in the organisation out by trying simply to peddle faster!

Back in 2010, Jocelyn R. Davis and Tom Atkinson wrote in the Harvard Business Review an article titled Need Speed? Slow Down, which captures a lot of this thinking really well in my view. They include a useful table that compares strategically fast organisations with strategically slow ones as shown below:

From Need Speed? Slow Down by Davis and Atkinson

The study by Davis and Atkinson revealed that..

..higher-performing companies with strategic speed made alignment a priority. They became more open to ideas and discussion. They encouraged innovative thinking. And they allowed time to reflect and learn. By contrast, performance suffered at firms that moved fast all the time, focused too much on maximizing efficiency, stuck to tested methods, didn’t foster employee collaboration, and weren’t overly concerned about alignment.

From Need Speed Slow Down by Jocelyn R. Davis and Tom Atkinson

This is the challenge I see facing education leaders in the current milieu. Instead of hunkering down and focusing on using tested methods (which haven’t worked in the past, so why should they suddenly provide results now?) we need to foster a climate of experimentation, exploration, reflection etc. – all of which is undergirded by a collective commitment to strategic direction and purpose.

Just like in a team cycling event, it’s the longer term goal that is always in sight, and this, in turn, enables decisions made along the way that ensure the speed towards that goal can be achieved. In other words – eyes up instead of on the front wheel.

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