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Professional swimmer pictured from inside a pool

Olympic Proof that Drag Beats Thrust in the Longer Term

And why this matters to your tech company

Chris Guest
Aug 18, 2016 · 7 min read

Many of us are inspired by the Olympics at the moment, but as both a specialist in tech innovation and also a swimming nerd, I took particular note of 19 year old American Olympic swimmer Lilly King’s races at the Rio 2016 Olympics last week.

In case you missed it, the young breaststroker won Gold in the 100m Breaststroke Final, setting a new Olympic record. Ignoring the out-of-pool drama for moment, take a moment to admire Lilly’s sprint to victory.

Just 2 days later, expectations were high as King competed again in the 200m breaststroke semi-final. Being the armchair expert that I am, even before the end of length 1 of 4, I loudly proclaimed to my family at home that Lilly was not going to win this one, and would lose to one of the swimmers in lane 4 or 5.

I’m struggling to find footage of the race (Please let me know if you have it), but what you would see is that Lilly King, battling in lane 8 was taking almost twice as many strokes as the winners. Despite exceptional energy and thrust, she probably expended twice as much energy. Lilly finished seventh and did not qualify for the final.

Sipping Caipirinha from the comfort of my armchair, I speculated that King had optimized for thrust, while the winners had optimized against drag.

In the longer term, drag inevitably fatigues thrust.

Just as with running, swimmers tend to be more inclined to sprinting, middle-distance or long-distance events. I myself am a sprinter, and fare better in short distance races. Not because I am especially good at sprinting, more because poor technique creates too much drag to be competitive at middle or long distance.

Drag is rarely a concern in the short term, but is always a concern in the long term.

Of course, this does not just apply to swimming, but high-performance swimming is a perfect analogy to understand the importance of drag, because the physics of it make the impact of drag so visible so quickly, and here is why:

  • Water is 1,000 times more resistant than air. (Source)
    This means that aqua-dynamics are 1,000 times more important than aero-dynamics, and why there was so much controversy about swim suits in the Beijing Olympics.
  • Drag in water increases exponentially with thrust
    In fact, for every 1x increase in thrust, water increases resistance 4x. (Source) You can experience this for yourself. Stand in a pool and move your arm slowly in a large arc through water, then do it again twice as quickly. When you move your arm twice as fast, it is not just twice as hard, it is 8 times as hard!
  1. Reducing Drag
    Given the 4x resistance just mentioned, to swim twice as fast you can either increase effort by 8x, or reduce drag by 25%. It is obvious which is preferable in the long run.
  2. Increasing “traction”
    The best swimmers have a great “catch” and take armfuls of water that they pull against. They don’t “wheelspin” by allowing their hands to slip backwards through water as they pull on it.
  3. Increasing Fitness
    Only after great technique comes the importance of strength and stamina. This is why the leanest or most muscular swimmer does not always win.

Why this applies to your tech company

Life in any tech company is a constant battle of thrust vs drag.

Is the effort you apply in releasing new products and features that you hope will give you the edge in the race against your competitors. Every member of every team feels the pressure to continually release new features and upgrades.

“This just became a job” (Warning: Contains non-PG language)

This speed of improvements needs to be balanced against the drag that accumulates from your activity. This drag is the wasteful, unwanted features, bugs and tech debt we all inadvertently create.

The more frantically we increase thrust the more we increase drag. Especially when we are working overtime or cutting corners.

Just like swimming, a 1x increase in tech team “thrust” (effort) creates more than a 1x increase in drag. You have probably experienced this too:

  • Your “ bloat” of unwanted or low-value features dilutes your ability to focus on the valuable ones. You always need to consider and work around them.
  • Bugs and tech debt slow your developers and increase the time needed to code any given feature
  • Bugs and incorrect tests create failing software builds, and block your ability to release efficiently, or sometimes at all
  • Your product can run slowly, or have slow load times
  • All of which can impact your customer’s ability to succeed, leading to customer churn, which in turn slows your business growth.

Now. Whether or not you care about this when you develop your product depends whether your team is a sprint team or distance team.

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USA Women’s Sprint Relay Team. Image credit NBC Olympics

I’m not referring to the AGILE practice of sprints here. What I mean is that some teams deliberately and appropriately optimize for short term speed. This is especially true for start-ups and marketing agencies that know they are creating short-term products that will intentionally be discarded, such as a lean product experiment, or a short-term marketing campaign.

If you are sprinting towards a short-term goal, worry less about long-term quality. Just ensure you have enough fitness to overcome the short term drag.

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USA Women’s Middle-Distance Relay team. Note, different people! Image credit: BeInSports

Distance teams are teams that complete more than a couple of laps. They know that what they do or don’t do this release will impact next release. Baked-in quality makes them faster in the future, whereas every bug created now is drag that will slow them later.

Distance teams could try increasing thrust by working harder, more hours, more team members, but very quickly their 1x increase in thrust is met with a 4x or more increase in drag, which exhausts their longevity.

When you are a longer-distance team, winning the race means both being both faster AND better. Where being better means both creating more value and delivering higher quality.

I see exact parallels between the science of swimming faster, and the science of delivering better products faster. Again, you need to:

  • Increase Traction
    Only create businesses, products and features that are really valuable. Because the first way to deliver better products faster is to not waste time “wheel-spinning” by creating products that nobody wants.
  • Reduce drag
    Invest in quality measures that prevent or reduce the amount of bugs, tech debt and feature bloat that you create.
  • Increase Fitness
    Continually review and improve the ability of your team to both create and deliver more valuable products.

So in both swimming, and in software:

If you only concentrate on thrust, drag will always increase it’s resistance and exhaust you. But if you reduce drag, you get faster thrust, for free.

We do this in three ways:

  1. Creating More Value (Increasing Traction)
    This is my speciality. I consult at the intersection of Business, Product and Growth Strategy, to help clients create products and features with proof of greater value.
  2. Delivering At Higher Quality (Reducing Drag)
    This is the speciality of my partner Sam Hatoum. Sam works with some of the world’s most respected companies, creating long-lasting, full-stack test strategies and practical capability to implement test automation.
  3. Continually Improving Both “Better” and “Faster” (Increasing Fitness)
    This is where we intersect. Together we create the cultural and capability changes needed to embrace a culture of experimentation to discover greater value, and culture of quality that invests in the long-term.

Both combine to enable clients to Deliver Better Products, Faster. That is, more features per cycle that have a positive impact on their business and their customers.

Are You a Sprinting or Distance Team?

Here’s how to tell:

If you create any product, feature or component of code that you will rely upon more than once, you are distance team.

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And if so, the first thing you should do is get our new book, “Quality, Faster.” The first release of which will focus on the delivery of value at high quality, and is essential reading for technical leaders, developers and QA folks. It will cover both a high-level, holistic look at how quality can be embraced across the team, and practical, code-level tuition on how to apply full-stack test automation using Node.js, React and more.

Click here to have a look at “Quality, Faster.

The second thing you should do is get in touch and just chat with us about your experiences and challenges in creating either higher value and/or higher quality, consistently, over the long term.

And of course, the third thing you should do, is let me know if this message resonates with you by clicking the recommend heart below, and helping me spread the message.

Thanks for reading, here are a couple more articles from Sam and I that you might like:

Quality Faster

Articles dedicated to helping teams deliver higher quality…

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