When Keith Jessop and his team of software and consulting professionals decided to put an ambition to do the legendary Coast to Coast adventure race into action, they needed a plan. After all, this is an event which justifiably attracts superlatives in its description: brutal, demanding, epic, punishing, unforgiving, gruelling, awesome. Covering some 243 kilometres and traversing the South Island from Kumara on the west coast to New Brighton Beach on the east, it is not an event for the faint of heart.
While faint of heart might describe the stereotypical IT consultant, it is a description from which the EMDA team are now immune. Punishing themselves daily with implementation of enterprise resource planning solutions, backed up with a disciplined training regime, provided the ideal resolve to take on and ultimately triumph in the event.
The Coast to Coast is New Zealand’s grand old lady of multisport events. Established in 1983 and consisting of six stages which can be completed by individuals in a single shot (‘the longest day’), individuals over the course of two days, or as teams of two or three. It takes place in early February, with the fastest individual men completing it in around 11 hours. 2017 winner Sam Clark broke the finish line tape in 11 hours, two minutes and 43 seconds.
The event consists of:
Stage 1: 2.2km Run
Stage 2: 55km Cycle
Stage 3: 30.5km Mountain Run
Stage 4: 15.5km Road Cycle / 1km Run
Stage 5: 70km Kayak / 400m Run
Stage 6: 69.5km Cycle
A good idea
“When the idea first came about to tackle the C2C as a company, the team decided I should first do the two-day individual event and see if I came out alive,” Jessop quips.
He did, in 2016. “That instilled an interest which got everyone in the company involved and committed, although they did at first do the sensible thing and think I must be mad to want to do it again.” Suffering from the toll that the punishing event took on his ‘first-timer’ body, Jessop almost reached the same conclusion.
The most important factor was finding a way to bring a team together and agree to a common purpose, Jessop says. While the exercise was not a business challenge, he sees close parallels with how work gets done. “So, we stuck to that. We prepared a budget, put it through the management and leadership team, who signed off on it.” With two in the leadership team already committed to do the two-day individual event – Jessop included – sign-off was probably assured. “We agreed three individual 2 day entries, and two teams of three who would take on the teams’ event.”
Being an outdoor multi-sport discipline rather than the familiar territory of the office, Jessop says was an unusual scenario. After all, seeing your boss in lycra is, arguably, not for everyone. With a laugh, he says he moved to a governance role, and put other team members in direct charge of the EMDA Coast to Coast squad. “I managed to get people to listen to me – albeit sceptically – I took quite a democratic approach to it, seeking volunteers for team captain and logistics captain.”
Dealing with complexity
Logistics, stresses Jessop, is a big deal in an event like the Coast to Coast. With bicycles, kayaks, running gear, wet weather gear, multiple transition points and a total of nine athletes needing coordination, food and drink, the right gear at the right time and in the right place, getting it all to work together on race day is a big ask. “It’s the biggest job and I’m pleased to say the rest of the company – those not competing – stepped up. We put a logistics director, Peter, in place to coordinate the whole lot; it was shaping up as a typical project with multiple resources and things chopping and changing all the time.”
At least, he concedes, this was familiar territory for the EMDA team. “This is what happens in most software projects. There tends to be a lot of moving parts and you have got to be flexible to constantly changing circumstances.”
Calling in the experts
The other factor that seasoned professionals understand well is the point at which external, specialist consulting support is necessary to achieve an optimal outcome. To that end, the unproven Coast to Coast teams looked to Complete Performance coach Richard Greer for running and cycling training, and Topsport for kayak training.
A structured approach, Jessop says, kept everything and everyone on track in the lead-up to the event. “With me as sponsor, Pete as Logisitics Director and Simon as the team captain we formed a steering committee, effectively a project team which mapped out everything we needed to do up to race day,” Jessop confirms.
That included a trial run in November 2016, where the entire team did the whole course as much as weather permitted. Equating the preparation to a software project, Jessop notes, “This served as a pilot and a measure of where we would need to focus attention to get the results we wanted, identifying any weak points in individual preparation on the one hand, and any issues with logistics on the other. User acceptance testing, so to speak, would come later, as we hadn’t yet finished training for the race itself.”
Go-live (or ‘race day’)
Race day finally arrived on 10 February. These are always nervy affairs, even for seasoned hands who have seen many a start (and, one hopes, finish) line. It is much the same for any ‘go live’ phase of an ERP project, with months of planning, preparation, hard work and sacrifice coming down to a rather absurd yet fervent hope for ‘good luck’.
Be that as it may, practically the whole of EMDA turned out for it: 30 people and 11 vehicles, including two caravans and a motorhome. Ahead of the Friday start, this convoy set up in two stages, starting on a Wednesday, with time allocated for ‘dress rehearsals’ of the transition points.
Handling transitions is an interesting challenge. Getting tired legs off a run and onto a bicycle, or off a bicycle and into a kayak, or indeed out of a kayak and back onto a bicycle can create some wobbly moments. On race day, it is a completely different story, because it is compounded with hundreds of other competitors and spectators trying to handle their transitions, feeds and support as fast as possible.
“I’m pleased to say, though, that the event itself and the final result of the work which went into it was absolutely brilliant. Everyone did their bit, we got good results with everyone finishing and the whole team came together and gelled. The best test of that was immediately at the finish of the gruelling experience: asked if they would do it again, everyone said ‘yes’ without hesitation,” Jessop smiles.
Like every enterprise software project, glitches and hitches did crop up on the day. “Communications were a big challenge as the phone works at Kumara, but coverage disappears pretty quickly outside of that. This meant we had to plan carefully and get the timing right for the support so that everyone who came into a transition zone got what they needed,” he says.
Addressing that issue was a matter of putting a ‘man in a van’. “From a competitors’ point of view, pretty much everything went to plan, with one exception. A kayaker was quicker than the support team, which meant the bike rider on that team had to set off without the planned food and water. I’m happy to say he managed an exceptional time anyway,” Jessop notes, “Probably because he wasn’t weighed down or distracted by the snacks.”
Everything is in the preparation
Contrasting the event to an ERP project, Jessop says ‘everything is in the preparation’. “Do that right, do the piloting right, develop a plan for the go-live and have the flexibility to amend the plan depending on what transpires on the day. We learned an immense amount about ourselves as individuals and as a team, especially on the trial run.”
And the ultimate outcome, not at the finish line on Christchurch’s New Brighton Beach, but once everyone was back in the office? “There is a different atmosphere. We have a shared experience which was forged under difficult circumstances where, even though we made a lot of mistakes, even though we were all cold and tired, a brilliant atmosphere was formed. At work, we know there will be problems and lots of them, that is the nature of implementing ERP solutions. But whether anything becomes a massive problem or not depends on how well people work together,” Jessop relates.
The C2C saw one of EMDA’s core values put into practice. “That’s One Team. Another is Commitment. You don’t get outcomes like this without those values. We’ve built special bonds among our team and that’s something which will stay with us forever,” he concludes.