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World Bicycle Day 2023 - What management consultants can learn from racing cyclists? [EN]


10 recommendations on World Bicycle Day

Racing cyclists are said to be lone warriors. But that is nonsense. You can train alone, but you can only win a race as part of a team. The same applies to consultants. They are said to be egoistic lone warriors who only have their career in mind. Here, too, the opposite is true. In an agile and increasingly complex world, a project can only be brought to success through pronounced teamwork.

Is this coincidence? No, there are many parallels between this fascinating sport and management consulting. However, cycling can look back on a tradition of more than 150 years, whereas management consulting is just 50 years old. So, what can the less experienced learn from the more experienced?  


1. Be honest with yourself

Every athlete has goals. And it's human nature to overestimate oneself at times. But anyone who has ever started a cycling marathon and wasn't really fit or carried a few kilos too much knows that this is not a good idea. The competition becomes a torture – not to mention a victory. Racing cyclists therefore always orient their sporting goals to their true fitness condition.

Some consultants act differently and occasionally take on projects in areas where they do not have the necessary expertise. The consequences are predictable: Stressed team members, not always convincing results, and possibly dissatisfied customers combined with reputational damage.


2. Train, train, train

Racing cycling is extremely training intensive. Professionals ride between 30.000 and 40.000 km a year – and only a small part of that in races. Even in the hobby sector, training is essential. Training is time-consuming, exhausting and not always exciting. Nevertheless, it's a must if you want to get better. Every racing cyclist knows that.

Not so many consultants. They are practically always in a race (in a project) and systematically underestimate the training aspect (integration, development, project documentation, know-how management, etc.). That is why only very few (those who have recognized this) manage to grow permanently.


3. Never start without race tactics

Whether you're a professional racing team or hobby rider, you can't do it without race tactics. For example, in the big round trips, it's a question of whether you`re racing for classification or for stage wins, whereas for the hobby rider it`s more a question of clever race planning (Where can you make up time? Where is it better to save energy? Where should you join a group? etc.). Of course, you can also start without tactics, but then you will not win.

Since many consultants are always in the race (see 2), they often lack the time to prepare the next race well and start the next project without a clear project approach. The consequences are manifold. One is the overtime caused by the unclear project approach. Yet these overtime hours would be easily avoidable if consultants would act like racing cyclists.

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4. Prepare yourself

Even with sophisticated race tactics, it doesn't work without meticulous preparation. In racing cycling, this covers a wide range of topics – from the choice of the right frame (the right wheel, the right sprocket cassette, …) to clothing and catering to spare parts. If you are careless here (and choose, for example, a high-profile wheel, although a strong crosswind is announced), you have no chance to implement your race tactics. Since it is absolutely no pleasure to ride, for example, with an 85 wheel in a crosswind, racing cyclists are always very well prepared.

Many consultants are different. Even those who have developed a clear project plan often lack the time (see 2) to prepare the team adequately for the project. Internal kick-offs, briefings, role clarification, and expectation management do not take place at all or only in rudimentary form. The resulting complexity (identification process at the beginning of the project) often jeopardizes the chosen project approach because more time or resources are required in the end.


5. Stick to the plan

The plan is sacred. It is based on month of training, ergometer tests, VO2max and lactate measurements. It is your path to victory. Of course, there can always be irritating moments. If you take part in the Ötzi and on the ascent to the Jaufen for instance, you are easily hung by a guy 20 years older than you, you might ask yourself what all the training was for. But only beginners will be tempted by this to deviate from the plan in order to briefly demonstrate who is really the better rider. Professionals remain calm, keep their cadence ironclad and stay within the precalculated watt window, because they know that the party will be over behind St. Leonhard at the latest and that they will meet again then.

Not all consultants are so consistent. Many don't even have a clear plan to stick to (see 3 and 4). Those who do have one often find that they are forced to leave it every day in a complex world. Partly because the team lacks experience (see 6). Of course, everyday project work is agile. But that is exactly why a common thread can only help. Anyone who has ever driven a cycling marathon knows this.


6. Be agile and flexible

Even if basically number 5 applies, the world is dynamic and something can always happen: The wind can shift, it can rain, the temperature can be different than predicted, you can have a flat tire. Preparation and the plan are therefore important, but not everything. Successful racing cyclists react quickly and flexibly to new requirements: If there is suddenly a gusty crosswind instead of the predicted calm, a Belgian gyro can help to save power in the lead group. But that requires the appropriate experience. Many consultants lack this. Beside the project manager, many teams are staffed only with junior colleagues. Sudden deviations from the project plan cannot be handled because the necessary experience is lacking.

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7. Be a team player

Of course, in the end only one can win. But to even get to this dimension, racing cycling requires pronounced team play. In the professional racing teams, this takes place via clearly defined roles in the team and detailed choreographed procedures (who pulls the sprint when? etc.). In the hobby area, it's more about the cooperation of strangers (sharing the lead work, etc.). Since every racing cyclist has ridden alone in a headwind, he automatically knows about the power of the team.

Most consultants are also aware of the power of team play, but not all of them are able to implement it. The deficits described in 2, 3, 4 and 6 often lead to the fact that colleagues, some of whom have little experience, are left to their own devices in difficult and rapidly changing project constellations. A natural reflex is to first make one gets through the project reasonably well. The consequence is that team play is neglected. 


8. Communicate and lead

Team play is crucial in racing, but team play also has to be organized. Someone has to take the initiative – a big challenge, especially in hobby racing, when you don't know the other riders in the race. If you don't want to permanently take the lead work over alone, you have to motivate the others to join in. Or if you have a bad day and are stuck in the Gruppetto, you have to make sure that you don't fall behind the time limit. That, too, needs to be organized. This self-interest means that many racing cyclists are good motivators.

The situation is different for many consultants. Since consultants are always in the race (see 2) and project managers in particular are often in several races at the same time, they often lack the time for comprehensive communication and motivating leadership work. Many teams stay to themselves.


9. Hang in there

In every race there comes the moment when muscles start to burn, the last bar has been eaten and the water bottle is empty. But even if your wattage numbers are dropping steadily and you're only running with 34/32 on the final Ötzi climb to Timmelsjoch, giving up is not an option. It goes on, slowly but steadily. Better to arrive later than never. Racing cyclists are tough.

Of course, there are no mountains in the team room or in the home office, but there are comparable challenges: You've been working towards a board presentation for weeks. Then something happens, the agenda changes, and no one is interested in the presentation anymore. You start all over again, just like that. It's a bit like the long climb up the Timmelsjoch.

Younger colleagues in particular are then often frustrated and lose motivation. Many consultants don't manage to keep the motivation in the team high over the long time. This has something to do with a lack of leadership (see 8), but also with teams that are too junior (see 6). 


10. Learn and improve

You've made it and you're at the finish line. But you can always do better: Was the sprocket cassette really optimal for the course? Wouldn't liquid nutrition be better than bars after all? Wouldn't sleeves be better than a jacket, etc.? Racing cyclists are perfectionist and they are constantly learning.

This is not always the case with consultants. Learning from a completed project requires time to systematically prepare and professionally document the knowledge. For a racing cyclist, that would be training. But consultants often don't train enough (see 2) because the next race is always coming up.


Today is World Bicycle Day. Cycling is a fascinating sport and makes an important contribution to a more sustainable future. Within the many subcategories of cycling, racing cycling is the most fascinating. Racing cycling is extraordinarily healthy, but it also teaches us a lot about consulting. We are enthusiastic racing cyclists (at least some of us!) and we do consulting like we do our races.


That's why Santiago is different from other consultancies! We avoid many of the mistakes that are still widespread in the industry even after 50 years of history. The results speak for us: Despite difficult macroeconomic conditions we are growing constantly and this with far above average standing times of our employees. Of course, at Santiago it is like after every race – there is always something that can be done even better. We are working on it!

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Dr. Georg Wolters
Managing Director & Head of People