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The Exchange Zone: 5 Implementation Lessons From Olympic Relay Racers

Every four years, thousands of athletes come together to fight for the pride, honor and respect of not only their home country – but the world. These elite athletes train a lifetime to perform in a circumstance where a hundredth of a second will make the difference between success and failure.

These are Olympians.

While all sports rely on timing, consistency and teamwork – few tie these core components as tightly together as Olympic Relay Racing. The moment of handoff between one racer and the next, the point the baton literally gets passed, is called “The Exchange Zone.”

In the world of HR Technology the moment of handoff between one company to another, the point everything often falls apart, is called “Implementation.”

What can HR Technology Vendors and Buyers Learn from Olympians:

  1. The Exchange Zone is Small: In racing world, it is less than 20 meters on a 400 meter track. In a presentation I’ve watched on the topic of HR Technology buying, William Tincup says that implementation is the one word in the software buying process that can make even the most together HR professional drop to a fetal position instantaneously. I fully agree, my corporate clients and vendors both dread implementation – not because the products aren’t great, but because the “exchange zone” is so small and easy to mess up. With the requirements portion of the implementation process often lasting just weeks – its a lot of pressure to make sure everything is exactly as you want it.
  2. Timing Is Everything: Even when things appear to be going well, a slip or drop can happen so quickly it ruins everything. Before you even start down this process know what your end goal has in mind. If you are a vendor – make sure your client understands what they are looking for as an outcome before you even start. Running just a fraction to fast too soon will ensure a “drop” and cause the entire implementation process to slow down or come to a complete stop.
  3. Consistency Matters: Any good olympic relay team has “spares.” Substitutes that are either trained to step into play at any point in time for their particular role in the race. During an implementation of technology, a lot of things can happen – you have a baby, get a promotion, win the lottery, whatever – stuff happens and no one in corporate America is naive enough to think it doesn’t. Everyone on the team (and even a few that are “spares”) should know clearly the goals and outcomes of a project. Have back up’s on both the corporate and vendor sides that fully understand how to do all the parts of the process just in case. So many software complaints I have seen stem from inconsistencies during the implementation process.
  4. Trust your Team: When you watch the hand-off’s it is really amazing the amount of trust the runners have in one another. In fact, during the baton exchange, the lead runner will only look back if there is an emergency. Otherwise, she runs as fast as possible, hand extended expecting the baton to be placed where it should be. Pretty scary when we start to put that in terms of our latest $$$$ purchase – but its spot on. If you don’t trust that your vendor (or client) knows what they are doing, you will likely have a failed implementation. Why? Because you will constantly be second guessing decisions or not taking the best practice advice that has been shared with you for good reason. Trust shouldn’t be building at implementation phase, it should have been tested and gained in the buying phase.
  5. Have a Great Coach: A coach does more than just assign where someone goes. They work with the psychology of the runners in play to make sure the Kohler Effect comes into play and that those that are lower performers step up to meet the demands of higher performers when in a group setting. In tech implementations, this role is often best served by a third party consultant that has done implementations, worked with that vendor, understands all of the in’s and outs and can really help guide you to success. While there is an additional cost component – in the long run, a proper implementation will produce a positive ROI (Note: I don’t do any implementation work but check outTalent Function or Knowledge Infusion)

In Olympic Relay, a team made up of average or above average runners with strong teamwork, consistency an trust in the exchange zone will out perform a team made up of exceptional runners that can’t perform well together in the exchange zone. Look at the 2004 & 2008 US Women’s 4×100 Olympic team for examples of that.

Article reposted from HRTechBlog.