Progressive Overload: In Business, as in Sport
Last year, I published a quick blog post titled “Improvement takes Practice.” The premise of this piece is that if leaders seek improvement in their business results, then they’d better ensure they and their team are allocating time toward improvements. However, there is another side to this coin, which is overwhelming teams with improvement demands and activities, without any demonstrated ability to sustain improvements consistently in the past.
As a competitive cyclist and endurance coach, I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that consistency is king. I also know that high performance levels typically require a high level of training load. In less than two weeks, what is arguably the world’s most popular bicycle race on gravel terrain, Unbound 200, will take place in Emporia, Kansas. Over 200 miles of big rocks, little rocks, sand, mud, heat and wind will be the order of the day. Most of the top competitors have just completed their final training blocks, which are averaging 30-40 hours per week of bicycle riding for two to three weeks. However, it is years of training and building up to consistently riding 20+ hours per week that enables the strongest athletes to handle those even bigger weeks in preparation for the big event. Put a new cyclist on a bike for even 8 hours per week, and the result will probably not be good. Overwhelming fatigue, sleep disruptions, soreness and injury are all possible, if not probable. Continue with that kind of “overload” and the average person will experience worsening consequences related to chronic overtraining. In addition to physical symptoms, the motivation to continue will be squashed, and it is likely that person will burn out and never return to training.
In business, we often see leaders getting convicted about improving business results and pouring a ton of activation energy into new initiatives. Meetings are scheduled, Kaizen events are lined up, new measurements are rolled out, and expectations for a quick return on investment abound! Commonly, this surge of activity and new expectations are piled onto employees who are already overwhelmed with daily firefighting and doing their best to process orders using weak or broken systems. Improvements are needed, but push too far past the team’s current capabilities, and the results will be similar to our cycling example: fatigue, burnout, employee turnover and even worse.
Sound familiar? Like quick fix diets and online courses promising to make you an expert in just a few hours, it seems we sometimes fail to appreciate the journey from where we are to where we want to be. One of the most common questions I hear when helping a new client embark on an improvement journey is, “will this be another flavor of the month experience, or will it be different this time?”
As with endurance training, consistency is king, but the key is practicing and establishing routines that ENABLE consistency. Pile on too much too soon, and consistency is shot right in the foot. The concept of progressive overload begins with understanding the current capabilities of the athlete, and then adding just a little bit more than their physiology is accustomed to in order to achieve an adaptive response that makes that athlete stronger. The body also requires sufficient periods of rest to allow the adaptations to take hold. In time, the athlete becomes capable of handling higher workloads, ultimately achieving higher performance.
Guiding businesses to drive change and establish a continuous improvement culture is similar to serving as a coach to endurance athletes. Too little action, and no progress is made. Employees lose confidence and fail to get on board. Too much, too soon, and sustainment is a pipe dream. Burnout sets in and activating future improvement initiatives becomes even more challenging. The business’s current capabilities and challenges must be assessed, and a thoughtful plan developed to begin building consistency AND momentum. At Long Run Business Services, we have a track record of doing just that, as well as guiding execution of the plan to achieve real and lasting improvements. Don’t hesitate to reach out if we can assist in your improvement journey!