If you’re interested in improving your business and outperforming your competitors then you will find the techniques used by world-leading Red Bull Athletes inspirational.

In this article we’re going to talk about how to increase business performance. We’re going to draw inspiration from an incredible source – the diverse team of over 600 Red Bull athletes and High Performance Director Andy Walshe. Red Bull facilitate the achievement of incredible goals. Andy’s team creates the systems, processes and training to ensure the safe and predictable achievement of those goals. This approach is applied across nearly 200 different sporting and performance disciplines. The ideas map beautifully into the business world, which gives us some exciting insight into how to increase business performance. Here are just a couple of examples of Red Bull athletes achieving incredible things.

Red Bull big wave surfer Ian Walsh takes on a unique and lethal wave in Tahiti, in the southern Pacific Ocean. He describes this as, “The best wave of my life”. With the support of Red Bull Ian surfs waves that only a few years ago were considered unrideable.

On 14th October 2012 Felix Baumgartner was raised into the stratosphere, almost 40km above New Mexico. He skydived to earth reaching speeds of over 840mph. 8 million people watched live. This video has been watched 36.5 million times.

Looking ‘Out Of Discipline’

Traditionally, if you want to increase business performance you would likely talk to other business experts. If you’re an entrepreneur you will probably study the achievements of other entrepreneurs and seek to replicate their success, and avoid their mistakes. There is a lot of evidence to show that if you want to increase business performance then this is a great place to start. However, there is more that you can do beyond this to increase business performance.

The team at Red Bull do things quite differently, and they argue that their approach provides a major competitive edge. Take big wave surfing, for example. Surfers like Ian Walsh are pushing the boundaries of what human beings have achieved in this field. There aren’t necessarily people who have experienced what Ian aims to achieve, and therefore this limits to how much benefit Ian could derive from studying other surfers.

To move performance into this new territory the Red Bull team begin by asking what attributes are needed to achieve a feat like big wave surfing. Attributes like confidence, patience, strength, stamina, accurate assessment of risk, mental calmness, etc would likely be identified. The next stage is to identify the very best exponents of each of these attributes. For example, the stamina of an Olympic 400 metre runner, the risk assessment capabilities of the SAS and the mental composure of the Dalai Lama.

By combining the characteristics from many different disciplines the Red Bull team start to build the template for a ‘super human’, who would be capable of attaining new levels of performance. They can then build training plans to take someone like Ian Walsh towards the super human template. Let’s apply these ideas to a business challenge to increase business performance.

Imagine a wedding dress shop. Say the owner wanted to create the ultimate wedding dress shop, better than anything that exists today! How could the owner look ‘out of discipline’ to find new insight? Here are three examples:

  • A wedding dress shop should be a pleasant and relaxing environment to be in. Airlines, top hotels and spas go to great lengths create relaxing, pleasant, first class experiences. To increase business performance the wedding shop owner could study the experience that is offered in a first class flight on a premium airline.
  • Occasionally there are differences of opinion when shopping for a wedding dress. For example, a mother and daughter might disagree, and sometimes the wedding dress shop owner has to manage that tension. Looking out of discipline it’s conceivable that relationship counselling may offer insights that could be applied in a wedding dress shop to increase business performance.
  • Finally, there are times when alterations are needed to the wedding dress, perhaps the bride-to-be loses weight in the lead up to the wedding. Handling alterations can be complex and tense. In software development agile methodologies encourage continual change to improve and satisfy user needs as best as possible. Could any insights be drawn from agile software development to increase business performance of the wedding dress shop? The world’s first agile wedding dress?!

Increase Business Performance Progressively

Before you do anything else watch the following incredible video. It shows stuntman Robbie Maddison jumping a trail bike 96 feet (29 m) onto the Arc de Triomphe in front of Paris Las Vegas. He then descends 80 feet (24 m) off the monument to return safely to ground level.

So how do you teach someone to do what Robbie Maddison has done? The Red Bull approach is progressively. Over time the Red Bull support team steadily increased the height that Robbie jumped to ten feet at a time. They built his confidence steadily and ensured that he could fail safely. The graphic on the right shows a basic psychological model, called the performance-arousal curve. It says that performance increases as levels of tension rise, but only up to a certain point. Beyond this point performance suffers.

Increase Business Performance - Performance Arousal Curve

During training the Red Bull team increase levels of tension to push their athletes beyond optimum performance. They do this to discover where the optimum performance point lies. To increase business performance requires everyone in the organisation to be as close to optimal performance as possible. A certain level of tension can increase performance, but too much can be detrimental. Progressive increases in challenge level can effectively increase business performance over time. Effective feedback loops and opportunities to fail are also required for individuals and teams to increase business performance.

Creativity

Red Bull argue that some of the highest performing people in the world are also highly creative. Andy Walshe explains that the Red Bull athlete development programme continually looks for ways to develop higher levels of creative thinking in their athletes. One example of this was a joint venture between Red Bull and Cirque du Soleil. The following video tells the story of the time Red Bull athletes spent with Cirque du Soleil. It’s fascinating to watch how experts gain new insight into their fields of expertise by doing something completely different. There is a strong argument to say that you can increase business performance by removing yourself from your normal environment to create uncertainty. Uncertainty forces fresh thinking. As you relate that fresh thinking back to your past experiences then new insights follow. These new insights can increase business performance.

Conclusion

Some people who seek to increase business performance look for an extra 1% or 2% here or there. The Red Bull philosophy is completely different. They see a future that is unrecognisably better than it is today. They reflect back 200,000 years to early homo sapiens who lived a very basic existence. They consider how far the human race has come since then. They slide the model forwards 200,000 years into the future and expect that humans will become unrecognisably better once again. For this reason they don’t see ceilings to human achievement.

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