Playing to Win

# Aka What can managers learn from a TREC competition? Back in 2005 I wrote a book about training horses. I used a technique I applied to improve business performance to think about and understand riding. In this article I’m looking the other way around: I’m exploring what businesses can learn from horse riding…in particular from a horse riding discipline called TREC.

The main equestrian competition in the part of France where I live is called TREC (short for Techniques Randonees Equestre en Competition.) It is the ultimate test of the relationship between horse and rider in the open countryside. It is a competition which originated in France but there are now competitions around the world including in the UK and there is a world championship too. The competition lasts a full day (sometimes two days) and has three phases: (1) Parcours Orientation et Regularite (POR); (2)Maitrice des allures (MA) and (3) Parcours Terrain Varie (PTV). In english, these three phases are called Orienteering, Control of Paces and Obstacles respectively (See for more information.)

And the other problem is that the map does not necessarily reflect what we will find on the ground! The map could be inaccurate. There could be routes on the map which no longer exist or routes on the ground which are not marked on the map. The map is a “model” of the terrain. A snapshot at a point in time. Like the models we have of our business and market.

# The First Task: The “Map Room” The team is given an OS map with a route clearly marked and 4 copies of this map minus the route. The teams first task is to copy the route onto their own map under time pressure. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but usually there is insufficient time for the whole route to be plotted by each team member. So, first issue, we have to come up with a route copying and compilation strategy. The copy needs to be accurate if we are to stand any chance at all of following the route. We also need to be aware of distance and what I call “nadgery bits”….small deviations from tracks, confluences of paths etc.

Map Room Discussions

TREC is primarily a team sport here in France. It is usually done in a team of 3 or 4 riders. The objective is to accumulate the maximum points over the three phases to win. Phases 2 and 3 are essentially individual exercises and the best 3 scores of the team count to the team total. The first phase, the real team phase, is what I want to talk about here. It is the phase that carries the maximum points which can so easily be lost. It is about getting the whole team from point A to point B following a defined route at a target speed. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but I can assure you it isn’t. Much like trying to get a business team to follow a strategy and deliver targets! Let me try to explain…

Team Tete a Tete

# Losing Points We leave the map room at an appointed time and with a target average speed to achieve until the first control point. However, its important to note that we have no idea where the control point may be. Marks are docked for arriving at a control point too slow or too fast. Marks are also docked for approaching a control point from the wrong direction. The time is taken as the last member of the team to enter the control point, so team members need to keep together. There are also clickers positioned on the route to punch a hole in the team’s route card. Marks are docked for not finding and punching these holes (which shows the route has been accurately followed).

En route

# Admitting you are lost It seems trite but the way to win at TREC is not to get lost. We avoid getting lost by having an accurate route and ensuring we follow it. This means always knowing where we are on the map. The challenge is doing that and controlling the speed of the horse. And, of course, the faster the speed, and/or the more distractions (such as the horse misbehaving, team conversations etc) the more difficult it is to keep track of the route….and the more we get lost!

So how do we know we are lost? Essentially, we realise that where we think we are on the map bears no resemblance to where we actually find ourselves. Our orienteering tutor taught us to look for three features on the terrain and on the map….three pieces of evidence. And if we couldn’t place ourselves, we were taught that the best strategy is always to go back: When lost, return to where found….and start again. Simples!

# Resistance The problem is the huge resistance to going back. I did several competitions like this where we got lost but people refused to admit it and refused to go back. They said it was a waste of time and we couldn’t afford to lose the time given the time target (and this pressure seemed to get greater on sections with higher target speeds.) So instead they would hurtle ahead faster and faster, hoping somehow to re-find the route! And those of you with horses will know that they are team (or should I say, herd) animals and they always go together….so once one goes, they all go! And the result is always the same…even slower achieved speeds and wrong approaches….and yet more penalties.

The good bit is that (unlike life) the slate is effectively wiped clean for the next section of route as the new speed target and start time commence anew. But not truly anew! There is a something lost…motivation, confidence, and (most importantly) our trust in the team. The experience and frustration of that affecting our attitude to the next section of the route…So getting lost on the first section after the depart can be really crippling.

You can only imagine the frustration of someone like myself who always competes to win!

# The lost feeling The other thing I noticed was a feeling: A feeling that something doesn’t feel quite right. Call it an intuition. Initially I used to ignore this feeling, and in teams I found that other team members were really happy to ignore it too. Over time I learned to trust this instinct and used it to stop the team and start a strategy dialogue.

It helped but then I realised that to really “win” I needed to avoid having this feeling completely, by never getting lost!

I’ve learnt that there are people who come across as confident (most definitely not lost!!) and like they know but, actually don’t! When I didn’t have much experience myself, I was inclined to follow some of these people….or at least my horse followed theirs!

# Not getting lost I learnt that not getting lost requires 100% attention: Attention to the map and to the surroundings. It demands my complete engagement in the moment. No stress. No tension. It’s not like I’m actively seeking to find a route…it’s just that I’m not losing it! It’s different….

Is the person who admits they are lost weaker than the person who careers ahead confidently?

And an intimate knowledge of my horse’s movement also helps. For example, I took measurements of my horse’s speed over different terrain. This helped me to develop a “feel” for speed (just based on pace and terrain) so I didn’t have to calculate it…..which stopped these distractions from route finding.

# An Experiment So, I decided to try an experiment. I asked some friends to join my team and accept me as leader. The rules were that all they had to do was follow me at my pace and they were to say nothing, unless I asked them a question. I explained this was because any questions or banter would distract me from route finding. I asked them to place confidence in my navigation skills and to see if we could get better marks that way. God knows we had tried all the other ways. We had nothing to lose really!

And guess what, they agreed! And guess what, we won! And guess what, they wanted to follow me again!

Who wouldn’t if you got to win by doing nothing?

But the key thing was that I got to win….I did it for me.

That winning feeling

But that meant that winning depended on one person and the others were not developing their skills. So, we took it in turns to lead with the same rules. It made the team stronger and taught everyone about trust and discipline. To be a good leader we need to understand how to be a good follower, and vice versa. This approach puts learning and sustainability, rather than winning, first.