Eliud Kipchoge following his attempt to break the 2 hour marathon barrier.

Creative Work: Team Sport or Solo?

Today’s musings are brought to you by a race, and some thoughts rattling around in my head about teams.

“On your mark, get set…”

I was glued to the TV last weekend watching Nike’s #breaking2 attempt. In case you missed it, Eliud Kipchoge crossed the finish line alone in 2:00:25, just 25 seconds shy of breaking the 2 hour barrier and shaving nearly 3 minutes off the existing world record (if it were a sanctioned event, which it wasn’t).

It gave me goosebumps.

It was a beautiful race. The conditions were perfect. The pacers were swift. The transitions seamless. The hydration strategy was on-point. But what really got me was the boost Kipchoge must have felt from the team of pacers leading in an arrowhead formation (thank you science, and Nike labs!). Not the physical boost. The psychological boost. It made me miss my college running days. And it sparked some thoughts about creative teams.

Creative work is a team sport. And yet…we work in a system, an industry, which romanticises and lionises the individual genius. It’s wrong. It’s is rooted in a mindset where individual fame and recognition is the best source of knowledge for making decisions for an entire team. Teams trump individual talent. I’ve been asking myself lately what behaviours creative teams (vs individuals) adopt to get in the zone. Why exactly did the #Breaking2 team work?

These are my observations:

The runners knew each other

The runners knew each other. Not on a neighbourly, first-name basis level, but on a we-run-120-miles-a-week-together level. That’s a lot of hours on the road to get to know a LOT about your teammates.

The Breaking2 pacer team was made up of runners from all over the world, chosen based on their running capabilities and temperament. “We needed calm, steady pace runners who can run the same speed repeatedly,” says Dr. Brad Wilkins, a physiologist and the director of Nike Explore Team Generation Research.

Everyone had clearly defined roles: Racers, Rabbits, and Mopeds

The role of the rabbit in the #breaking2 attempt was to help the runners maintain a steady race pace and to create a wind divergence.

The role of the racers was simple, but audacious: train like hell, forgo participation in major marathons in the lead up to #breaking2, conserve energy in the race, and break the two hour marathon barrier.

Other roles in the Breaking2 team included scientists, physiologists, coaches, and moped drivers tasked with delivering hydration to the runners during the race (eliminating any slowing as a result of picking up bottles).

Nike pacers rehearsing in advance of #Breaking2.

The team were laser focused on a singular goal

The goal was simple. Break 2 hours. That equates to 4:34 minute miles. And everything was designed in pursuit of the goal.

They rehearsed the plan

Perfect practice makes perfect. Everything in the #Breaking2 attempt from hydration to pacing was meticulously planned and rehearsed .

High functioning individuals are not substitutes for high functioning teams. Teams can achieve what individuals can’t. Teams are the answer to doing the impossible. But great teams don’t grow on trees. They are meticulously composed, united through shared goals, clear roles, and a hell of a lot of practice together. We have to stop flogging the myth of the lone genius as we introduce a more nuanced understanding of what it means to work on, or with teams.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

For me, the purpose of a creative team is always to push, and be pushed further and faster to do even better work than any individual could do alone. When there is no team, there is no point. The work itself is fun, but the real work, the real beauty, the special sauce that makes the outcome amazing, comes from working with other humans towards a single goal. Always has, always will. There are practices teams we can adopt from other successful teams, but there will always be even more ways to improve. Being open about the challenges that teams face will help us all improve. Your feedback, and questions on these observations, are welcome.

What behaviours have you used or observed to creative teams together?

Ready, set, go!



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