How to sustain business performance?
One of the most common questions I am asked by my corporate clients is how to sustain business performance over time? In a competitive climate where investors expect consistent quarterly growth, and employees are being squeezed like never before, the risk of burnout is high—for individuals, leaders and companies alike. To avoid performance overload, we can incorporate a principle from the elite sports environment, called periodisation, into the business planning cycle. I recently discussed the similarities in business and sport in my last article.
Periodisation in sport is a massive area of research and applied practice. We use it to structure training and practice in such a way that results in athletes being primed to deliver their best performance when it counts. For example, Olympic athletes follow a finely-tuned training schedule that incorporates clear cycles built in and around their key events leading up to the Olympic Games. We use periodisation to break down a time period into macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. The duration of each cycle can vary, but typically they are as follows:
Macrocycle = 1 year
Mescocycle = 4 to 6 weeks
Microcycles 1 week
We define these cycles to help
Manage fatigue and reduce the risk of overtraining by controlling factors such as load, intensity, and recovery;
Optimise to deliver peak performance at a specific time;
Allow for differences in the individual athlete (or employee), including time constraints, training age and status, and environmental factors.
By periodising the week, month and year we can improve performance. It’s important to note that intensity is normally split into three ranges – low, medium and high intensity. By doing this we enable the athlete to place stimulus on the body and then time to adapt from that stimulus. Training at high intensity all the time will lead to overtraining and loss in performance, but also low-intensity training will lead to a lack of performance.
How can periodisation be applied to business performance planning?
As a performance coach, the first thing we do at the beginning of a new season is to sit down and look at the overall goal and important milestones. Just as in a fiscal year for business, we know most of our important dates for the season—or macrocycle—at the outset, such as the start, breaks and end. We would then plan off-season dates, as well as a deload week around those dates. In business, we can take a similar approach. This involves working back from your annual goal and schedule breaks and downtime first and foremost. Although this may sound counterintuitive, recovery is just as important as training and at some points during the year, it has an even higher priority.
Next, we break down the planning further, into mesocycles. The goal for a mesocycle and its exact duration can vary from one industry to another. The standard measure seen in large multinational companies is the fiscal quarter (3 months). But a mesocycle could also be a specific project with a specific short-term block lasting around 4 to 6 weeks.
Once we have broken down the year into mesocycles, we can identify several occasions when the individual athlete or team needs to peak. Likewise, in business, there are significant moments during the year that are higher priority. For example, a retail company typically expects higher sales in the last quarter, while a service-oriented business might see a majority of their contracts locked down in the early part of the calendar year, as an annual corporate budgets are approved.
Next, we dig down into the microcycle. This is the day-to-day work over the period of a week and time management takes the forefront of what you do. In a professional environment, the sequencing of sessions is vital for success. We all understand that sports athletes cannot train at a high intensity all the time. But somehow we expect “cognitive athletes”—that is, people working in a business context— to be always on. Ideally, you need to be able to rotate high, medium and low-intensity days during the week. Most people use their weekend for low intensity or recovery days, when, in fact, that’s the time to spend time with family, friends, playing sport or pursuing hobbies, and getting outside.
Now I can imagine what you’re thinking: “This guy doesn’t understand my business. I need to be working hard all the time. We need to be an agile team and if we’re not consistently performing, our competitor will overtake us”. Don’t get me wrong. I agree 100% that we need to work hard to achieve results. But just as in sport, there needs to be a balance. And balancing needs to be planned. What would happen if I asked you to run as fast as you can for as long as you can? At some point, you would slow down as fatigue builds up. The same is true for cognitive performance. High-intensity mental function is demanding and will result in a drop in performance with adequate rest periods.
What are the benefits of periodisation for business performance?
When we look at the benefits of periodisation in sport, we start to see the crossover into business.
First and foremost is the management of fatigue. Excessively long working hours, poor sleep and lack of recovery all lead to a drop in performance. It’s essential to make sure that you create the right mix of high, medium, and low-intensity days for your team during the week. Planning deload weeks during the year can seriously help with restoration and reflection. After intense work periods or significant events, it’s essential to have time away from work.
A business needs time to develop, grow, perform and achieve results. As with training, there needs to be time to build a foundation to allow the athlete to reach their potential.
Everyone is different and we are all at different stages in our lives. Understanding your employees, in terms of their family life, relationships outside of the office, health factors and overall stress levels, will allow for improved performance. We all have an optimal stress threshold that we need to produce peak performance. As a leader, understanding this for each of your employees is critical. Applying pressure or stress to someone already under strain only perpetuates burnout, lost productivity and, ultimately, poor performance.
Understanding periodisation and using it as much as possible can help in both sporting and business performance.
I am always keen to talk to executives about performance management, feel free to drop me a message or email.
Director & Founder