A guide to shipping products faster than your competitors.
On a misty Saturday morning in Vienna in October 2019, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran 26.2 miles in a once-inconceivable time of 1 hour 59 minutes 40 seconds, unofficially breaking the world record.
I know what you’re thinking: what can product development teams learn from marathon runners? Turns out — a lot. You don’t just get up and run a sub 2h marathon. You design your life around it. You put in the work. You lean on coaching. You surround yourself with the best. The same is true for competing in the business world.
In today’s startup environment, speed is everything. It’s not just about building things faster, it’s about decreasing the cycle time of learning and reducing the cost of being wrong. With the right focus, training, and support, teams can accomplish incredible things in short periods of time — like the moon landing (134 days) or the production of COVID vaccines (300 days).
Simply put, having the best product is not a competitive advantage. Everything can, and will, be bested. Having the best product development velocity and culture is what it’s all about.
In this article, we’ll explore the core learnings of elite marathon runners that can be applied to product development. Here’s how we’ll break it down:
- Acquire Raw Talent
- Commit to Huge Goals
- Set the Pace as a Team
- Stay Hydrated
- Put in the Work
- Love What You Do
1- Acquire Raw Talent
“It starts with you. It’s no other person.” — Kipchoge
The single most important ingredient in peak performance is the people: the raw talent, potential, and mindset. Simply put, if you don’t have the right people, nothing else matters.
It’s no surprise that some of the best runners come from Kenya — a mix of higher altitude training, lower body mass index, strong mental fortitude, and a culture of running. While we are all born to run, some of us were born to run faster.
- Set a high bar for talent as a core value. This requires investment and patience. You need to start with an exceptional founding team and be picky with every single hire.
- Invest in sourcing talent. Focus on your sourcing and recruiting practices, don’t settle, and pay more than fairly. The best have many options, so spend time nurturing them.
- Be clear about who you’re looking for. Look for people who are hungry, who are smart, and who know how to work with others. Craft your interview process around these values.
- Ensure your organization values tech teams. Tech teams are not just churning out widgets in an assembly line — they are problem solvers that deeply understand how to leverage technology to maximize impact. You can’t outsource your competitive advantage.
- Keep an eye out on talent management. A single weak link can bring down an entire team, so course correct quickly and decisively. Concurrently, invest in your top performers and do everything you can to keep them motivated.
The best want to work with the best — so this will become easier and have massive dividends over time.
2- Commit to Huge Goals
“Don’t make excuses. When you have decided to do something, do it. No excuses.” — Kipchoge
Marathons are quite simple. 26.2 miles. Kipchoge’s goal: complete in under 2h. The distance and the time are completely arbitrary — but large and clear. And yet, once the human mind fixates on a goal, the rest becomes irrelevant. Nothing is more powerful than clear, motivating goals to power high performance.
- Energize your team. When you believe in the impact of your work, you will work smarter and faster. Make each individual understand how their effort contributes to the company’s success and therefore their success. If you can’t, it likely means the work is not important — cut it out.
- Define the right goal. Don’t rush this — spend time as a team aligning on how to measure success. Focus on leading indicators (e.g. number of miles run) while keeping track of lagging indicators (e.g. marathon pace).
- Give yourselves deadlines. The goal of a 2 week agile sprint is to define what we are going to get done in 2 weeks, and deliver on it. Have the folks responsible for the work commit to the team. Don’t tell them what to do — instead ask them what they are going to do, and hold them accountable.
- Measure progress. When you run consistently, you will run faster. The direct correlation between effort and impact motivates teams. Put up key metrics dashboards and look at them every day.
- Keep it simple. You run a marathon by running 1 mile, 26.2 times. Don’t overcomplicate things. Focus on the nearest milestone without losing sight of the bigger picture.
You run a marathon by running 1 mile, 26.2 times. Don’t overcomplicate things.
3- Set the Pace as a Team
“You cannot train alone and expect a faster time. 100% of myself is nothing compared to 1% of the whole team.” — Kipchoge
Shipping software is hard because it takes a team. You need research, product requirements, designs, back end systems, front end experiences, infrastructure, testing, product marketing, legal and compliance, data and analytics, operations, etc. Keeping these teams informed, aligned, and in lock step is as challenging as it is essential.
- Define your pace and pacemaker. In every race, there is a pacemaker — an individual who is setting the pace for the rest of the group to follow. Being a pacemaker is tiring and provides leverage for the rest of the team who can simply follow. Assign pacemaker duties to the most driven and organized individual on the team —their role does not matter.
- Structure autonomous teams. Organization structure is often designed by politics rather than productivity. To achieve peak performance, you need to separate reporting structure from team structure. Who needs to work together to get things done? Simply put: teams should be autonomous groups of people that can report to different functions but work together on a given goal. Cut the number of hoops folks need to jump through to get the job done.
- Share common goals. Once you’ve defined the right goal, make sure the cross functional team is aligned towards it. If different groups on the team have different incentives or desired outcomes, you will not get to the same finish line. This means sharing successes and failures as a team, and not assigning glory or blame to any specific group. One team, one goal.
- Build trust. In order to get leverage from others, you need to be able to depend on them. This takes trust. To build trust, you need to work together over time and give each other feedback. This takes time, so be patient and keep teams together that perform well.
To achieve peak performance, you need to separate reporting structure from team structure.
4- Stay Hydrated
“To win is not important. To be successful is not even important. How to plan and prepare is crucial.” — Kipchoge
The number one rule in training is don’t get injured. To avoid doing so, you need to build your way up to peak performance and keep a pulse on how your engine is performing. There are many facets to this:
- Know yourself to avoid burn out. It starts with you: understand when you are at your best and design systems around this. Take care of yourself: your mental and physical state. Identify areas of weakness or opportunity and define training plans to build strength in these areas.
- Know your team to avoid breakdown. Keep a pulse on how your team is feeling through retrospectives (every sprint), post mortems (after every launch or issue), and 1–1s with key stakeholders (monthly). This helps you proactively identify hot spots before they become injuries, and define clear interventions to resolve them. Tweak the process constantly based on new information.
- Know your customer to avoid building the wrong thing. If you don’t spend time with your customers, you will surely build the wrong product. Deeply understand their needs by spending time with them. Don’t ask for their opinions, ask for their pain points. Use hypothesis driven design and let data steer decision making.
- Know your priorities to avoid sub-optimal decisions. Similar to the hierarchy of needs, start with the most important priorities and work your way up. As leaders, ensure you have visibility across teams so you can understand the relative priority between them and play air traffic control. To do so, ensure teams provide radical transparency into goals, progress, and risks to the rest of the company.
- Know the tradeoffs to avoid taking the wrong shortcut. A big part of the equation is being deliberate about what you reward vs. punish. If you make speed a singular goal, you’re inherently going to be taking some shortcuts elsewhere. Be clear on these tradeoffs and invest in raising the tide through process and tooling whenever possible.
5- Put in the Work
“This is a really simple deal: work hard.” — Kipchoge
There is no secret to outperforming teams — they simply work harder. Once you have the right people, the right goals, and the right team structure, you need to simply execute. To do so, you need to relentlessly focus on doing the work.
- Reward impact, not politics. This is much simpler to state than implement — but it’s worth stating nonetheless. If your performance reviews reward the wrong behavior, your team will behave poorly. Incentivize contribution above all else. Avoid busy work and face time at all costs.
- Define process and norms to cut distractions. Good work requires deep work — uninterrupted periods of concentration. To maximize deep work, define clear processes for escalation and ownership so that a subset of the team protects the rest from distractions.
- Use meetings as weapons, not weights. Have extremely focused goals and agendas. Avoid recurring meetings other than decision making meetings like sprint planning. And most importantly, stop letting your calendar rule what you do — audit your schedule and decline / kill meetings more often than you think. Give everyone permission to do this.
- Invest in high velocity decision making. This requires being comfortable making decisions under uncertainty. There are many frameworks here — like defining Type 1 vs. Type 2 decisions. The most important strategy is pushing decision making to the lowest level of the organization as possible. Align on goals at the top, and let teams define the initiatives underneath while providing visibility. By doing so, teams will spend less time convincing their boss’s boss’s boss and more time executing and learning.
- Bias towards actions. Actions are stronger than words. Ideas are cheap — execution is what matters. Many dream of breaking the 2h mark for a marathon. Few run 100+ miles a week like Kipchoge. Ask yourself what you can do today, and get it done. It’s that simple.
Ask yourself what you can do today, and get it done. It’s that simple.
6- Love What You Do
“When you smile and you’re happy, you can trigger the mind to not feel your legs.” — Kipchoge
As Kipchoge said: No Human is Limited. Yet, we are still all human. The greatest runners are the greatest because of their love for running. Loving what you do is not only important because we spend much of lives working — it makes you better at what you choose to do.
- Train managers to be coaches. Instead of telling your directs what to do, give them the tools, context, and skills they need to succeed. Coaches are on the sideline — observing, giving feedback, and tweaking the team. They invest in developing their people. The execution is up to the players.
- Build an inclusive culture. What this means is build an environment where every opinion is heard, and every person — no matter their background, skillset, role or identity — can grow and succeed. Easier said than done. It starts by viewing inclusion as an investment, not a cost. When each of your teammates feel like they belong, they will go to incredible lengths for each other.
- Find skill-to-project fit. Ikigai is a Japanese concept that defines the intersection between that which you love, what which you are good at, what which the world needs, and that which you can be paid for. This not only requires hiring the right people, but finding the right place for them in the organization and tweaking constantly.
- Care deeply. Show your employees you care about their success and their wellbeing. Check in with them often, and spend time investing in them as people outside of the work they are directly responsible for. Find out what makes them tick. If your employees feel like you have their back, they can focus on what’s ahead.
- Have fun. Invest in making your workplace somewhere people want to work. This means bringing your whole self to work and using rituals to connect with your colleagues on a human level.
Instead of telling your directs what to do, give them the tools, context, and skills they need to succeed.
At Ramp, we have a value called “Win the Marathon, Sprint by Sprint”. It means that we focus relentlessly on our near term goals, without losing sight of the finish line far away. In under 18 months, we’ve built the most powerful and loved spend management platform on the market — outcompeting large competitors with a fraction of the team.
Here were some of lessons I learned along the journey. I hope they help you with yours, wherever the road takes you.