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‘Negative splitting’ your project plans… critical lessons from the world of athletic performance.

The concept of ‘negative splitting’ is nothing new to those in the world of athletics and endurance sports. Put simply, it means you plan the effort and intensity of a training session or race such that the second half is executed faster and stronger than the first.

Any athlete will tell you countless stories of starting a race too fast, and either trudging slowly and painfully through the back half and falling across the finish line exhausted, or worse, failing to finish. Either way, the pain of unfulfilled potential outlives the physical discomfort, and for some, this can be demotivating and demoralising.

Sadly however, many of the same athletes racing on a Sunday, fail to apply these lessons learned on Monday in their business or project. Whether you are planning a small-scale project or a large transformation program, human performance remains the cornerstone of success, and therefore incorporating the following four key concepts can help you to build sustainable, progressive and winning program plans.

Clarity of purpose and goals

Like an athlete embarking on their preparation to run in a marathon, the formation of any large business project or transformation program naturally brings with it an increased level of excitement and enthusiasm. Often at this stage, the goals and intended outcomes exist only at a high level. Visions of the finish line are formulated and communicated, and the possibilities seem endless. It is at this stage that time must be spent clarifying, in detail, the program’s intent and the principles that will underpin the development and delivery. Without this clarity, the realities and overlay of timeframes, schedules and the need to start delivering ‘something’ leads to self-interpretation, divergent streams of activity, contradictory direction and unnecessary intensity. Each and every person involved must know exactly what the goals are, but more importantly, the phases of the program, the philosophy and design principles underpinning each phase, and the expected progression of intensity. Taking the time early to mentally prepare your people for the road ahead is critical in building the right expectations, reducing anxiety and ensuring that the program understands and can sustain the effort required, right to the end.

Training and conditioning.

Preparing to unleash a winning performance in endurance sport is a process of gradually building both physical and mental capacity and capability. Attempting to perform at ‘race pace’ too early leads to flatlined or reducing performance gains and physical and mental breakdown. Large business projects are no different. We’ve all seen projects that had the potential to deliver huge wins, start off at a sprint, but fail to maintain the early intensity. Sub-standard deliverables, missed milestones, unrealistic expectations, and stressed and burned out staff are the hallmarks of programs that fail to conserve energy for the back half. The program must identify the capabilities required early, so that staff have enough time to build the strengths and capabilities required to get the work done. Working out that key skills are missing during delivery phases is not good enough, and points to failures in defining purpose and intent.

Your staff also need to be conditioned for the pressures and expectations of the journey ahead. This phase is not about slowing to a walk, but about consciously putting in place an environment where the program collectively builds its capacity and capability to remain strong and stay healthy for an extended time.

“…Programs that are crystal clear on their intent, purpose and design principles, have been paced correctly, and have nurtured the health and mental wellbeing of their staff, can expect surges of energy and positivity at the times when they need it most…”

Physical and mental nutrition.

Whilst it seems obvious that a healthy body and mind are key to delivering high performance, sadly in both endurance sport and transformation programs, this principle is forgotten a surprisingly high proportion of the time. Worse still, is a lack of recognition or planning for the health of the participants throughout the program. Whether it is the deadlines set, the need to make profit, the expectation of stakeholders or simply poor planning, the health of the program staff is often neglected in the name of the success of the deliverables. High performance over extended periods requires food, rest, sleep, and validation. Staff irritability, lapses in judgement, reducing levels of collaboration and communication, flagging energy, impulsive decision making, introversion and irrational and emotional reactions are all indicators of a person struggling under the pressure. As program managers, you have a duty of care to identify these signs early, and better still, plan the program to reduce the risk of these symptoms occurring.

Personal development of program staff is yet another aspect of program life that too often falls by the wayside. Lured by the promise of career changing development opportunities, acquisition of market leading skills, unique experiences or exposure to new age thinking, your staff give a lot, and often give up a lot, to join a large project, with the expectation that those promises are fulfilled. The excuse that looming deadlines, tight schedules, or program changes and issues are the reason why staff fail to receive personal or professional development during programs is simply a cover for lack of adequate planning. And simply saying, “just being on this program is a development opportunity” is a cop-out. Your program is nothing without your people, and without growing your people, they will disengage, ensuring that this program, and those that come after it, will not reach their potential.

Building intensity and getting to the finish line to win.

Once the first three principles are embedded, the program plan can safely be structured with a natural and gradual increase in intensity, pace and pressure, backed by prepared, conditioned and engaged staff. The back half of a large project will always require increased intensity of effort. There will always be surprises, issues, challenges and last minute pushes to get it all across the line. This is where the planning of the first half of the program pays off. Programs that are crystal clear on their intent, purpose and design principles, have been paced correctly, and have nurtured the health and mental wellbeing of their staff, can expect surges of energy and positivity at the times when they need it most. In addition, you will retain motivated staff that will push toward the finish line relentlessly, making the finish line the euphoric experience it deserves to be, rather than the all too familiar feeling of: “so glad that’s over, I’ll never run a marathon again”.

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