Are you in a Pursuit or a Sprint? And why does it matter?


Are you in a Pursuit or a Sprint? And why does it matter?

Team GB cycling success has been all over our screens during the last couple of weeks, and I for one have been fascinated. The combination of technical efficiency, team work and rapid decision making is enthralling. How do they achieve so much success?

My other current conundrum is how to convince people that consumers often behave like flocks of birds, and show that it matters. Flocks collective move rather than individually respond, but is this anything more than a conceptual indulgence. “So what?”, people say with a shrug, “We’ve been doing fine without having to worry about the complications and challenges involved with changing our marketing practices”. So in my search for demonstrations of the impact of networks and interactions, I can now turn to something with high profile TV coverage. A classic example of the counter-intuitive behaviour that breeds success within a network.

Think of the track cycling, either the Pursuit or the Time Trials. In this challenge the competitors don’t need to know how the other competitors are behaving, it is “just” a fight against the clock. So the strategy becomes easy to conceive, even if monumental to execute. You simply work out the way to get yourself, or the team, across the line quickest. Optimise posture, design aerodynamic wheels, finesse the gearing, then add up all these marginal gains and go.

But with the Sprint the strategy is different. Here the race is constructed with interactions between two or more competitors right from the start. The whole context of success changes. Yes it still helps to have the best bikes and the strongest legs but tactics become paramount - for the sprint Laura Trott needs her head as well as her heart pumping. If she used those tactics in the Pursuit, they’d look bizarre. Once competitors are similar in characteristic, it is best to start at the back, go slowest, even stop, all in a bid to build-up a significant deficit, before deploying all the reserve energy in a final surprise burst for the line. How’s that for counter-intuitive thinking? Once interactions become important, you win by going slowest and the last become first. We watch in amazement how far back Jason Kenny can be before he comes flying through to win his next gold.

This analogy also translates to the road racing as well as the track. Most of the time Chris Froome positions himself within the main Peloton, leaving the individual attacks to fend for themselves. It’s only the introduction of a Time Trial or the intrusion of a severe mountain, that causes the swarm of cyclists to break-up and tactics become more individual.

And so what about when your customers interact with you? Do you know if they have begun to interact, either consciously or inadvertently with your brand, product or service? Have they begun to formulate opinions or use the service in ways you hadn’t conceived of or can control? As you can see in cycling the right strategies change dramatically between Time-Trial and Pursuit to Sprint racing. What was a winning strategy becomes a loss. What looks right at the start, may change as you grow. So do you know which it is? Is your sector a Pursuit or a Sprint? More importantly if your competitors mistakenly think you are running a Pursuit, and you start to adopt the strategies of a Sprint, there are big wins to be made. It takes detailed understanding of the local context, sometimes the confidence to do nothing, then the rapid response to go big when it really counts.

So, if you haven’t yet checked out the presence of collective behaviour and flocking within your customers, then start there, and challenge your current strategies. There are tools and approaches available now that enable you to diagnose flocking. To understand, what type of race you are in, getting choosing the strategy for the right race can have dramatic effects. Just ask, Froome, Kenny and Trott.