Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rules of Skiing and Business

Growing up in northern Maine there was a running joke that the annual climate was 7 months of winter, 1 month of mud, 2 months of bugs, July and August. When you have a long winter you learn how to enjoy the outdoors or you go crazy. While I enjoyed lots of winter activities, including a bit of ice fishing every now and then, my passion was skiing. I started when I was 4 and still get flush with excitement and anticipation on the first chairlift ride of the day looking down at the freshly groomed trails.

During my years in college, I found that my friends shared my passion and we spent many days on the slopes of Sugarloaf deepening our bonds of friendship and exploring the rules of physics. We competed on every run for bragging rights on who was better, faster, or whatever. Many of us were engineering students and as we skipped classes where we might learn about the laws of thermodynamics, we made up the 5 Rules of Skiing. As I day dream about meeting up with many of them in a couple of days for a weekend of skiing, I find myself reciting these 5 rules and I think they have an interesting correlation to successful businesses.

So, here are our 5 Rules of Skiing with some ideas on how they apply to business.


As I mentioned, there was a bit of competitiveness in our collective group of downhill skiing Mainiacs and we tended to push the limits on speed and we took chances (calculated risks) to push the limits. We often raced down the slopes without stopping from top to bottom. Speed was favored over a slow pace, and there were many opportunities for one-ups-man-ship as we took chances on jumps, moguls, speed runs, etc. I think we did abide by the ski in control rules because in thousands of person-days on the slopes, I don't remember anyone ever having their ticket taken away by the ski patrol.

Getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible is critical in business, especially in today's economic climate. Speed of product development, speed of response to market needs, and changing quickly when your current model does not work are all critical components of winning strategies.

Many companies are risk averse, and this quality is even more prevalent during times of turmoil in the markets. Taking chances on new products, new technologies, new packaging of products and solutions, and new markets are all areas of opportunity for a business today. Chances can be irresponsible if not well planned or fully thought out, but they are critical to success. Well calculated risks that mitigate the downside and optimize the upside potential for a company, open new doors and position the company to take advantage of new opportunities. The Roman poet Virgil had a different spin on Rule #1 in his quote, "Fortune favors the Bold."


Standing at the top of a challenging run, my buddies would assess the line they were going to ski and launch themselves down the hill. Some fared better than others, some were more graceful, some skied on the edge of control and barely made it down the slope without falling. Some took tremendous, spectacular falls -- diggers or yard sales in skier nomenclature. At the end of the run, the brunt of the jokes were not focused on those that attempted the toughest line down the mountain, but rather those that skied very conservatively just to make it down the run. The badge of honor was always given to those of lesser skills that attempted things that were above their ability, crashed tremendously, and vowed to attempt to conquer the snow beasts on the next run.

This is absolutely true in business. Most people never will achieve their full potential, and therefore their business won't either, because they never push the limits. It is hard to know where the edges are located if you never try things that push your skills and capabilities beyond the edge of your comfort zone. Sales professionals often have a fear of rejection and this will inhibit their efforts because they don't want to hear "no" from a prospect which they equate to failure. Business leaders also fall into this trap, safe routes often win over pushing the edge and trying new approaches -- great innovators are not afraid to fail and when they do fall down they learn much more about how to overcome the challenge on the next attempt than they ever would have learned from not trying.


Many times when you watch a great skier challenge the mountain and win, you have the assumption that they operate without fear. While this may be true for some elite skiers, the fact of the matter is that most extreme sports stars are not devoid of fear but rather they have found a way to channel their fear into an increased awareness of their surroundings and athletic achievement. Screaming down a hill at 70 miles per hour in a downhill ski race is not a natural act. However, when you are scared it opens up your awareness of your surrounding and you see the small bumps and ruts that might catch your ski and make you fall. You start making decisions which control your fear, and apply your skills and talents to overcome the challenges which ultimately controls the situation and reduces the fear.

Entrepreneurs experience fear every day, it is part of the game and often part of the thrill they seek from their business life. It might be the fear of competition, of making payroll, of commercializing a technology before the competition, of winning the next new client deal. Operating in a constant state of fear can be debilitating to most professionals because it is not a longer term sustainable way to live or do business. However, truly successful businesses and their leaders confront fear, learn to control their emotions, and overcome it. Andy Grove wrote about the virtues of being paranoid and how this leads to survival, and while paranoia and fear are not exactly the same there are some parallels that you can take from the increased awareness when your senses are challenged by fear.


A couple of my college friends were former freestyle skiing champions. They had great comfort being airborne, and great control of their bodies while flying through the air. As a former ski racer, I always envied their ability to be seemingly out of control and destined to take a big fall, only to launch themselves into the air in the middle of a mogul field, control their body in the air, and then land to continue conquering the slopes. Thus was born, Rule #4. The idea was that if you knew you were going to fall if you continued in your current state, why not launch yourself into the air, use the time to recover or adjust, and then take your chances upon landing. You may fall upon landing, but the time in the air might also give you the ability to adjust, land successfully, and keep going.

Business activities can benefit from this same concept, although I would not suggest jumping off conference room tables or over cubes to test this theory. In many businesses a project team might get a bit out of control and can see that they will fail in their efforts in the near future. Rather than simply continuing on the path that they know will lead to failure, the project team might benefit from "airing it out" and use the time to adjust the project and potentially get it back on track. It may fail upon landing, but if it was going to fail any way it is much better to do something rather than accept the fall without trying an adjustment that might lead to success.


There are some immutable laws of physics, and gravity is one of them. In skiing, I have seen great feats and acts which have defied gravity for some period of time. However, at the end of the day gravity always wins out. Knowing that what goes up will come down is especially important if you are the object that is going airborne. Whether racing down a slope and unexpectedly finding yourself flying through the air, or planned flight from jumping off a cliff, you know that it is a matter of time before gravity will bring you back to earth. Preparation and planning is the key to make your reconnection with the snow successful.

In business, there are some immutable laws as well. Probably the most important is that CASH IS KING. Businesses cannot operate without cash, access to cash, the promise of cash, or some other way to create cash to fund operations. There are other business "laws" that can be overcome -- larger competitors can be outsold, less talented teams can beat more talented teams, feature rich products can be beaten by products with fewer features, etc. -- but in the long term the averages will work in favor of the stronger position.

Things that go airborne will come back to earth, and businesses without cash will fail.

If you are a skier, employ the 5 Rules of Skiing the next time you are on the slopes -- I guarantee it will create a more rewarding (and exhausting) day on the mountain. If you are not a skier, these 5 Rules can be employed in business or many other sports -- Go Fast & Take Chances, or Carpe Diem.

1 comment:

  1. Brent - This is a great post! It is so true how lessons of life (especially skiing) can apply so well to business!

    I hope people heed your advice.

    Enjoy your ski trip.