Occassional thoughts about orienteering

Sunday, August 17, 2003

What could the U.S. Team do next?


When I was running last Tuesday, I spent some time thinking about how to improve the U.S. O' Team. The team has been around for a bit over 20 years and has had ups and downs. It strikes me that some fairly easy to implement changes could make the team a better organization -- an organization more suited towards performance.

Loose and tight organizations

I think you can learn something about an organization by thinking about what the organization is focused on, how the organization is structured and how the members are linked.

Compare two organizations: the people who live on my street and the U.S. Postal Service Cycling Team.

The people on my street aren't formally focused on any common goal. We're just neighbors. We'd be concerned about problems (like when some cars on the street had their windows smashed out), but we're not trying to perform anything.

The people on my street aren't formally organized. We don't have a leader. We don't have a structure. We're all members of a larger group, the home association, but the people on my street aren't otherwise organized.

The people on my street aren't closely connected to each other. We see each other and wave or say "hi." Some of the people on the street are close friends with a neighbor. I know most of the people by sight, but I don't know the names of most of them. If I needed to get in touch with the person who lives across the street four houses up, I'd have to walk over and knock on their door. I don't know their names and don't have their email addresses or phone numbers.

Of course, such a loose organization has no money and spends no money.

The U.S. Postal Cycling Team is very focused on a common goal -- getting Lance Armstrong to win the Tour de France. Everyone knows the goal. Everyone accepts that it is their job to do what it takes to prepare to win the race. At the end of the race, everyone knows whether or not they reached the goal.

The U.S. Postal Cycling Team appears to be carefully structured. There are support staff who have specific jobs. There are directors. I doubt riders or other staff are confused about what is expected of them.

The U.S. Postal Cycling Team is closely linked. They see each other regularly. They communicate regularly. I'd bet that Johan Bruyneel can get in touch with anyone connected to the team in minutes. I'd guess that most of the people connected with the team get along with everyone else.

Such a strongly organized and focused organization has a big budget.

These two examples fit on a "spectrum" of organizations. I'll put the people who live on my street way over on the left of the spectrum and the U.S. Postal Cycling Team way over on the right. To make it easier to talk about, I'll call organizations way over on the left "loose" and organizations way over on the right "tight." (At first I thought of "weak" and "strong" but that doesn't work because "weak" seems to imply bad and a "loose" organization isn't necessarily bad because "loose" might fit the circumstances).

Where does the U.S. O' Team fit?

The U.S. O' Team is more a "loose" than "tight" organization. Over the years, I'd say the organization has become looser. That is ok, especially if it was a conscious decision. But, if organization matters, moving to the right could improve the performance of the group.

I think organization matters. Organization isn't the only thing that matters, but all things being equal a strong organization focused on achieving an objective will usually do better than a weak organization.

After the WOC in 2001, I wrote some thoughts about the team on the team's email group. Here is an excerpt:

The US Team doesn't - as far as I know - have any goals for World Championships. You can't really evaluate how we did without having some goals.

As an organization, the US Team is closer to a loose-knit community than a goal/performance oriented organization. I guess that is ok. But, we ought to recognize that it is a choice that the organization has made.

I think the most important thing the US Team could do to improve performances at WOCs would be to have some goals - both for the team as a whole and for the team's performance at WOCs. In other words, the team could decide to become a goal/performance oriented organization.

For individual orienteers to improve we need to train and race more. We need to spend more time practicing orienteering. I think the best way to get good is to live in Scandinavia.

Some basic premises

Improving the team would be easy (or at least easier) if you had a big budget. If the team could count of having thousands and thousands of dollars each year you could do a lot. But, the team doesn't have that kind of cash and shouldn't premise any plans on having much cash.

Improving an organization would be easier if you've had a number of people who are really dedicated to improving the organization. It'd be much easier to strengthen the team if you had a group of people who were putting 20+ hours a week into administrative work. I don't think there are those people, and I don't think you can count on having those people.

My basic premises in coming up with ways to improve the U.S. O' Team are that there isn't money and there aren't a lot of people who can work on improving the organization. So, the ideas have to be easy to implement. Implementing them has to be easy and quick.

It'd be foolish to say that the team needs to do something that it is unrealistic to accomplish. I could easily say, the team needs to get the top 8-10 men and women in the country, find them half-time jobs and some sponsorship money, find them places to live around the best terrain in the country, hire a Scandinavian coach, pay their way to international events, etc.

Three easy to implement ideas

1. Set goals for the WOC and commit to them.
2. Select runners to the team based on commitment in addition to performance.
3. Include sprints in the WOC selections.

Set goals for the WOC and commit to them

The "executive steering committee" should come up goals for the 2004 and 2005 WOCs. But, just having the goals isn't enough. They need to make sure everyone knows what the goals are and they need to get the USOF Board to approve the goals.

When the 2004 WOC is over, the Team should report to the board. Did the Team reach the goals? Should we change the goals for next year? ONA would report on how the Team did in relation to their goals.

Having goals and getting USOF buy-in builds some accountability. It might also start a move toward a change in the organization, from "loose" toward "tight."

Select runners to the team based on commitment in addition to performance

The Team (i.e. the national team, not necessarily the WOC team) should select members based on commitment, not just performance.

Currently, the Team has three groups -- A, B and C. Basically, the A group is the best few orienteers in the country, the B group is orienteers just a bit below them, and the C group is a bit behind the B group. Currently membership in the Team is mostly a measure of performance.

I'd like to see something like two groups based on goals and commitment. One group might be people who say that they want to go to the WOC in 2004 or 2005, record their training on Attackpoint, are ranked in the top 15 in the U.S., and are not over the age of 30. The group would have some name, "performance group" or "WOC group" or something. The other group would be everyone else.

Again, this isn't a big change, but it is a move toward an organization trying to perform well and demonstrating some accountability.

Ideally, the first group would commit to working regularly with a coach/advisor. But, I'm not sure that is practical immediately. It might take a couple of years to build up a small network of knowledgeable orienteers who'd help this group.

Include sprints in the WOC selections

This change doesn't do much to the organization, but it seems odd to me that there have been two sprint world champs and the U.S. has yet to have a sprint selection race.

I'd like to see the Team decide to select one man and one woman who were focusing on the sprint.

Not everyone (maybe not anyone?) agrees with me, but I think the sprint is a race that the U.S. could do comparatively well at. Encouraging people to focus on the sprint would improve our chances. Selecting runners based on a couple of sprint selection races might be enough to encourage that.

Some final words

I think these three things would be easy to implement and, while they wouldn't make the Team a lot better, would begin changing the "culture" of the Team. And, I think a Team that was a "tight" organization, that was focused on performance, is a prerequisite for a Team that performs well.

posted by Michael | 2:38 PM


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