Zero Email; From Zero To Hero


Posted on: October 16, 2012 by Lee Timmins

Sport ambition compared to zero email

When Bradley Wiggins crossed the finish line of the Tour de France in Paris this year, his victory marked the culmination of three weeks of effort that those of us who aren’t professional cyclists can only begin to imagine. The statistics tell their own story: Wiggins covered 3,500 kilometres in a little over 87 hours at an average speed of nearly 40 kilometres per hour. On his way around France he climbed 38,440 metres, which is equivalent to climbing Mont Blanc, from sea level, about eight times. Mind-boggling, not to say lung-busting, stuff.

It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that if you’d wandered over to him as he climbed off his bike on the Champs Elysees and suggested that effort wasn’t what won him the race, he might have given you short shrift. Or worse.

And yet it’s true. Wiggins’ efforts were no doubt superhuman, but so were everyone else’s. Indeed it would probably be rash to accuse anyone who so much as turns up to start the Tour de France, lycra-clad and smiling, of a lack of effort. No, what won him the race was something else. In fact what won him the race was, arguably, someone else.

Dave Brailsford is the Performance Director of British Cycling and the General Manager of Team Sky, the team with which Wiggins won Le Tour. He is widely credited with much of the success that has come to both organisations in recent years. His philosophy, broadly speaking, is said to revolve around two important ideas: the aggregation of marginal gains and compassionate ruthlessness.

The first of those espouses the idea that big gains can be made by making small improvements in lots of areas; that you can get 5% better (faster, in the case of cycling) by finding 1% from each of five different areas, like diet, ergonomics or aerodynamics. It’s underpinned by the reality that the margin between first and second in elite sport is usually tiny. Wiggins’ six minute victory over his nearest rival was, by Tour de France standards, huge (in 2011, after 86 hours of racing, the Australian Cadel Evans won by a little over one minute). The second says you don’t waste time on anyone who isn’t delivering success, or showing the potential to do so.

This sort of thinking is becoming increasingly commonplace in sport (Sir Clive Woodward used it in helping England to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003 and then wrote about it in his book, Winning!). In business, despite the now well-established adoption of the broader sporting role of coach, it’s still virtually unheard of.

Zero email organisation with ambition

This, in a nutshell, is what our move towards being a zero-email organisation is all about. Having announced the initiative with a strong gut-sense about why we were doing so, our thoughts quickly turned to the question of how we would achieve our goal. What we overlooked then, and what have since started to address, are the more important questions that zero-email throws up.

All of them concern the performance of individuals and the organisations they serve. They go something like this: What do we really spend our time doing? What value does that add? What would be a better way to spend our time? How do we get there in an intelligent – and even an elegant – way?

The answers, of course, aren’t simple. Email might be clogging up people’s working lives just as it’s clogging up their inboxes, but, unless we get them right, the alternatives might not look much better. It’s not that hard to imagine a time in future, when we’re all using four devices and as many different software platforms to communicate with our colleagues, when we’ll all look back with misty-eyed fondness on the simple days of laptops and email. Choice, in other words, could just add complexity.

Migrate virtual business communities

But choice is almost certainly at the heart of this whole issue: it’s about removing obstacles and freeing people up to use whatever communication platforms and devices best suits their needs at any moment. It’s why we’re already analysing communication patterns to identify where virtual communities exist within our business, with a view to migrating those communities to a system that better suits what they’re doing. That might be a social network, it might be something else.

What’s incumbent on us, as we do so, is that we keep things as simple as possible, for instance by creating technology that aggregates and repurposes multiple forms of communication so that our staff aren’t wasting their time switching between one solution and another.

These are the things that stand in our way. Dealing with them will provide some of the marginal gains that will eventually help us – and our clients as they, in turn, benefit from our experience – to succeed in our attempts to rise to the big challenge facing all organisations: doing more with less. If we can end up not only with that, but with a deeper understanding of how we can unlock performance, it’ll be effort well spent.

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About Lee Timmins

Global Head of Consulting
Lee Timming is Senior Vice President at Atos Consulting. Lee’s Atos career history has been in UK Consulting where he entered the firm via KPMG in 2002 as a Principle Consultant and has held a number of consulting roles. Lee has gained in-depth sector experience with Atos selling / leading consulting programmes within the Defence, Healthcare, Financial Services, Manufacturing Retail, and Transport Sectors. He has functional consulting experience within Lean management/supply chain and operations management, cost reduction and business transformation. Prior to joining KPMG Lee worked as a consultant at IMR and in Line Management roles at Bristol Meyers Squibb and BICC. He holds a BA (Hons) Business Studies, MSc Industrial Logistics.

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