japan baton pass

Image from spikes.worldathletics.org

"The reputation of a thousand years may be determined by the conduct of one hour"

Rio, 2016

How did the Japanese 4x100m relay team, none of the sprinters with a personal best 100m time quicker than 10 seconds, defeat some of the the world's fastest sprinters with a time of 37.60?

The answer: Baton Passes

To tie this back to the Japanese Proverb above: the years of training to determine who wins a 400 meter race may be determined by how effectively the team can pass a baton.

Let me pause to let you watch the video of the race here, it's absolutely electric.

So how exactly did Japan win silver, beat the Americans, and almost beat the Jamaicans (until Usain Bolt got the baton, they actually held the lead)?

A Beautiful Baton Exchange

japan silver medal

Bolt on Japan: “I could tell that they were going to be good ... the execution they have is always extremely good” (Source)

While many people watching a relay race focus on the individuals running the race, the Japanese national federation (JAAF) realized that they could compensate for their slower raw 100m times by perfecting the baton exchange.

JAAF analysed biomechanical data and discovered it is faster to pass the baton in the middle of the designated changeover zone than at its end, with the exception of the first exchange where the optimum point is in the final third of the changeover zone. Shunji Karube, director of sprint events at the Japanese National federation, also introduced a revised underhand exchange with the front runner’s elbow raised higher than waist level.

As Spikes explains:

The Japanese team employed the underhand (or up-sweep) baton exchange. The front runner receives the baton at waist level with his palm facing down. Unlike with a traditional down-sweep exchange, the up-sweep fits with the natural movements of top speed running and allows the giver to be closer to the receiver at the moment of exchange, ensuring minimum loss of speed.

Japan knew they couldn't win the race by out sprinting the other teams, but they knew they could shave off time every time they passed the baton.

So their sole focus became “a beautiful baton exchange.”

And this focus paid off.

The relay team tool silver with a time of 37.60. This was the highest finish ever for an Asian team in an Olympics sprint relay and it surprised the entire world.

Now you might be thinking, how does tie to remote work?

Level 4: When Things Go Truly Asynchronous

In a previous blog post, we wrote about the 5 Levels of Remote Work which explains how distributed companies evolve courtesy of Matt Mullenweg, former CEO and Co-founder of WordPress.

5 levels of remote work

While Nirvana is the goal for any distributed company, this isn't possible without reaching level 4: when things go truly asynchronous.

And a baton pass is the best analogy to capture the essence of how powerful asynchronous communication can be.

As Matt says:

"If you get good at baton passes work will follow the sun 24/7 around the world."

This isn't about trying to work around the clock. And, this isn't about evaluating people's work based on the time or hour of day that it is completed.

No, if your company masters asynchronous communication, it almost becomes inevitable that your company will be able to work seamlessly, 24/7 around the world.

Instead of defaulting to a live meeting for every single type of communication, team members honestly ask themselves, "Does this need an immediate response?" and, "Am I being respectful of someone else's time?"

Instead of thinking that every person needs to be in the same location, in the same office, and they are only working if you can see them sitting in a chair, one realizes that a team can actually be more effective.

Furthermore, mastering asynchronous communication means that real-time meetings are taken seriously. Agendas are set for every meeting. People are engaged. Why? Because real-time meetings are only held when they need to be held. The rest of the time, your organization is communicating effectively in non-real-time.

By mastering asynchronous communication...

You make your real-time synchronous communication more effective at the same time...

You truly can feed two birds with one scone.

Passing the Baton with Standups

There's always room to improve. Despite Japan's surprise Silver, Karube said:

“The baton pass in the Rio Olympics was ideal, but we do not think it was perfect. Several small improvements are still necessary.

For the team to improve further, baton pass work is still necessary, but it is also important to improve the raw speed of individual sprinters. We need sub-10 seconds sprinters.”

The same applies for working remotely.

There should always be a focus on how to maximize the potential of your employees, by coaching them and training them, and hiring A+ talent (sub-10 second sprinters).

But there should also be a focus on how your team works remotely (the baton pass).

However, just like it takes practice to master a baton pass, asynchronous communication needs to be practiced at work and become a part of your companies culture.

But no matter how hard you try to embed this type of communication into your culture and workflows, the right tools need to exist to enable asynchronous (non-real-time) communication. And we think Standups can help enable this communication and help your company master a beautiful baton exchange 💪

We help remote teams stay united and connected.

We create visibility.

We improve accountability.

And we enable flexibility by allowing you to communicate, collaborate, and stay connected on your own time.

Standups helps managers and employees simplify their lives and keep their finger on the pulse of the entire organization.

And we do that by combining the humanness of video & voice with the ease of messaging, in a user interface that makes it frictionless to see what your team is doing at a glance ✨


What do you think? How effective is your company at passing the baton? Are your baton exchanges beautiful? Let me know what you think on Twitter @arjmahadevan!

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