Periodisation for Success

I really enjoy climbing (at a low grade!) and occasionally write about what I get up to on my climbing blog. Earlier this year I read Performance Rockclimbing in order to pick up a few tips for improving my standard. The last chapter of the book talks about periodisation. I had never heard of this before but, in sports science, it is a commonly understood principle and one that I think can be useful in business too.

In climbing the key areas that you can develop to raise your game are strength, technique and endurance. The problem is that they are very difficult to improve at the same time. In fact, as you focus on technique, your strength and endurance are likely to worsen. Likewise working on your strength will actually make your technique a little poorer. What’s more, if you train hard for too long you are likely to burnout and suffer from physical injuries and reduced motivation.

All too often I see examples in business of people trying to develop multiple areas in tandem:

  • “We must grow our business, increase profit margins and improve customer satisfaction”
  • “Our software development needs to be faster with fewer defects and code needs to be more maintainable”
  • “We need to take fewer risks, innovate more and enter new markets”

These ill defined goals are not only poor motivators (as explained by Steve McConnell in Rapid Development) but also, in my experience, rarely change very much. Sometimes small improvements appear, sometimes they don‘t.

Enter periodisation…

Athletes break down their training programmes into distinct phases, each one focussing on a specific area. The overall programme is usually designed to peak in time for a major competition or event. An example of such a programme for a climber might look like this:

This programme focuses on each area (technique, strength and endurance) in distinct phases. Overall performance peaks at the end of the third phase (even though technique and strength are not at their highest levels at this point). A phase of rest is built into the programme to allow the climber to physically and mentally recover before starting all over again!

Periodisation can work for business too. Let’s take the example of growing business, increasing profits and improving customer satisfaction all within 1 year. First you need to decide on the most logical sequence for improving these. I would say that high customer satisfaction logically forms a sound foundation for growing your business. Once you have grown your business and have lots of contented customers you can look for efficiency gains that will allow you to increase your profit margins. After this you need a period of rest to allow progress to bed-in and for your team to reflect on your changes and develop the next improvement programme. Therefore your year would look like this:

Q1: Prioritise customer satisfaction. Identify weaknesses and spend time and money on improving them.

Q2: Prioritise growth. Seek out and win new business. Spend time and money on developing opportunities to maximise your win rate. Offer discounts if necessary. Try to maintain your customer satisfaction levels (although they will have to give a little).

Q3: Focus on profits. Reduce costs by minimising non-essential expenditure and improving the efficiency with which you deliver projects. Try to maintain customer satisfaction and business development (although they are bound to suffer to some extent).

Q4: Try to maintain your improvements in all three areas. Reflect on what you have achieved and consider your plans for the next year.

As you can see, periodisation allows you to make overall improvements by concentrating on specific areas in distinct phases. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to improve your software development processes or your bid win rate. The phases can be measured in years or they can be measured in days. The important thing is that periodisation can give your business the same edge that a structured training programme gives a word class sportsperson.

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