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Culture Inputs, Intended Workplace

5 Things the Ironman Taught Me About Culture

Getting on the bus at 4 a.m. bound for the swim start.

Getting on the bus at 4 a.m., bound for the swim start.

Earlier this month I completed the Ironman triathlon in Boulder, Colorado. As with any sport, there’s a distinct culture among the Ironman community. As I’ve thought back on what I learned from this race, I’ve noticed a few things that I can apply to organizational culture:

Rituals are important

One of the cardinal rules of racing an Ironman is to train in the same conditions in which you will be racing. This includes clothing, nutrition, preparation, and so forth. Yet when you travel to a race, everything is different. Rituals provide a way to replicate as much of the familiar as possible and settle into your routine.

In an organization, rituals can provide stability, establish roles and responsibilities, and reinforce desired values, beliefs, and behavioral norms. Thinking these rituals out in a way as to bring about the desired behaviors can go a long way in creating a thriving culture.

We can care a lot about things that don’t matter

An Ironman requires hundreds of hours of training, the investment of thousands of dollars, complete lifestyle commitment, and the sacrifice of just about everything else in life—all for something that ultimately is just a day of playing outside like children.

Intrinsic motivation is a powerful psychological phenomenon, one that we in business need to work harder to bring to our organizations. This kind of motivation can move mountains, yet we tend to rely on the extrinsic motivators—pay and benefits.

Failure teaches lessons and builds character

This wasn’t my first Ironman. I’ve completed several races over the years. However, this was my first Ironman since my DNF (Did Not Finish) in Coeur d’Alene last year. As painful as my DNF was, I learned more lessons about how to have a successful Ironman from this one race than I had from my previous successful races.

Business should be no different. We should embrace our failures as opportunities to learn important lessons that we can then apply to our future successes. Punishing failure does nothing but stifle innovation and progression.

We succeed thanks to an unseen army of heroes

It’s easy to complete and Ironman and feel good about what “you” have done, but the fact is that it takes an army to make this personal accomplishment possible. An understanding family that allows you to train, race organizers that deal with a constant barrage of problems and details, volunteers that want nothing more than to help you succeed, and a city of fans to cheer you along every inch of the way. When you look at the big picture you realize that very little of this individual accomplishment was truly individual.

Our accomplishments at work are similar. We celebrate the success of the individual or the project team, especially here in the US, but at the end of the day an entire invisible army of contributors helped to make this happen. We need to recognize this more.

People singularly devoted to an endeavor are boring

And now a warning to all of us so completely and singularly committed to something that it’s all we think or talk about: people find us really, really boring. A healthy relationship is a rich and varied thing, adding that proverbial spice of life. But spend an hour in a room with an Ironman in the middle of his or her training season and soon you’ll be looking around for something sharp to stick in your ears.

I’ve found that in business we can make the same mistake. Entrepreneurs are especially prone to being, well, dull boors. Ask them what book they’re reading and it’s inevitably some faddish business self-help book. Ask them what they’re doing this weekend and they brag that they never have a weekend, or that they “work hard and play hard.” Don’t be one of these people. Read a classic novel and go to a museum. You’ll be a more interesting person.

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