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Riding Without a Chain


A few years ago, I watched this thrilling and inspiring video of Aaron Gwin winning a World Cup downhill mountain bike race without a chain. He won because he was able to conserve momentum and speed, braking just enough to stay upright.

Although this is not a strategy to pursue deliberately in competition, I’ve started something similar when I ride my bike on local trails and I like what that practice is doing for me off the bike.

Organizations fight hard to create and maintain momentum, just like on the trail. With the constraint of having gravity as your only source of propulsion on the bike, you think more about where you really have to slow down and where it’s simply more comfortable. You think more carefully about risk. You have to be a bit bolder, too. Those same attributes are useful in leadership.

When you don’t have the equivalent of pedaling to move your organization forward, you look for ways to reduce friction and turbulence in the team. You look for “free speed” by shouting out good behavior and strong performance. Friction within the organization feels more costly, too, and so the impulse to call out bad behavior is also strengthened, which is a good thing.

Obviously it would be unwise to push this analogy too far. Get a corner wrong on the trail and you step off your bike, no big deal. It’s usually a low-cost mistake. Mistakes in an organization can be more expensive, and faster.

In the end, this illustrates something designers have long known: that introducing constraints can support what’s best in a school or any organization that is trying to do good in the world with more boldness, vision, and impact.

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