Beating existing hierachical systems

I just got my pre-ordered book from Dan Bigham, Start at the end: How reverse-engineering can lead to success. Dan is the brain behind one of the most exciting and innovative sporting stories in recent memory; how four friends from Derby took on the world’s national teams at track cycling’s individual and team pursuit, and won.

In the book, Dan argues that…

‘Every hierarchical system based on performance contains some element of complacency, of lazy thinking and of vested interest. That means these systems can be beaten.’

Dan Bigham

Dan suggests taking the reverse engineering approach of committing to an ambitious goal, identifying precisely what it takes to achieve it, identifying where you are now, and creating a plan to bridge the gap.

Reverse engineering

Reverse engineering is a process that can be used to learn anything given enough time. The goal is to make a big jump in performance based on a target endpoint. 

  1. Set a goal
  2. Take it apart – know precisely what it will take to achieve that goal
  3. Assess your resources – what you have and what is missing
  4. Develop your tools needed to bridge that gap
  5. Set the plan into motion – creating positive feedback loops
  6. Deliver the performance

Once you have achieved your goal, and if you choose to stay in the same environment and team, you need to move to continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is the pursuit of minor incremental improvements to keep you at or above your previous goal. A famous example of this approach is Masaaki Imai’s book Kaizen (Kai = ‘change’, Zen = ‘for good’):

  • Teamwork
  • Discipline
  • Organisation
  • Standardisation
  • Quality cycles

To make continuous improvement work, there needs to be a feeling of psychological safety. A culture of risk-taking and creativity is developed through the freedom for team members to make mistakes. This fearless culture empowers employees to contribute ideas and feedback, knowing they will be taken seriously.  

Leardership and management 101

I believe there are three keys to strong leadership and management:

  1. Vision
  2. Wellbeing
  3. Productivity

First, you have to have a clear and ambitious vision for the future your team is creating and communicate it so that they believe it. Next, you need to look after the individual team members and promote psychological safety. Finally, you need to break your vision down into clear goals and let each team member know what they are responsible for, then let them get on with it.  

Vision: the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination or wisdom.

Oxford Languages

Wellbeing: the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.

Oxford Languages

Productivity: the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.

Oxford Languages

A new manager can start with simple steps for each of the three elements and then gradually built upon them to spiral out their capabilities as a manager and leader. For example, once you have written a vision, you are holding regular open and honest 1:1 meetings with each team member, and everyone is clear on what they should be working on, you could turn your vision into a strategy, You could add a daily stand each morning to build community in the team, and you can start to have more control over the flow of work by identifying and removing constraints.

If you want some ideas on how to spiral out your vision and productivity, Jim Collins’s Level 5 leadership and the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) are an excellent place to start. For wellbeing, begin by learning about creating a psychologically safe workplace and then take the lessons of Self-determination theory to encourage your team to develop autonomy, competence, and relatedness in their work.