Thursday, July 3, 2008

Managing Expectations - Poorly

There is a powerful concept in business (as well as cycling and life, for that matter) that can be loosely described as "managing expectations." Understanding that there are often sizable gaps between Expectations, Delivered Value and Perceived Value, the ability to avoid or at least minimize potential dissatisfaction can greatly influence the Outcome of virtually all business and personal interaction.

Patrice Clerc, President of Tour de France organizer ASO, does not seem to be familiar with this concept. In fact, many of the most influential people in Professional Cycling do not seem to fully grasp this principle. And the sport is setting itself up for failure as a result.

Often, a key element in effectively managing expectations is clearly acknowledging that uncontrollable events may occur which affect the desired Outcome. No matter the extent of due diligence, things happen from time to time which cannot be anticipated or avoided. Understanding this fact and being prepared to deal with the consequences of unforeseen events generally creates an environment in which the gaps between Expectations, Delivered Value and Perceived Value can be minimized, often resulting in a greater sense of satisfaction for the parties involved.

I think it is safe to say that no one wants to see another positive drug test at the Tour de France. Not the ASO, the UCI, the teams, the fans and especially not the riders. But the underlying sense that the Tour and the sport of cycling will be irreparably damaged should another rider test positive creates an environment where the unforeseen and uncontrollable actions of a single individual carry far more weight than they deserve.

Specifically, the Tour de France is setting itself up for failure by instilling an Expectation that it will be an "incident-free" event. Not to be too pessimistic, but a precedent has been set for this race which is not likely to disappear in 2008. And the reality is that, despite all anti-doping efforts, the riders and the testers are human and prone to errors in both judgment and action. As such, it is historically unwise to create an environment in which there is an Expectation that no riders will test positive at some point during the next three weeks, either as a result of cheating or lab error.

If we are to believe Clerc, German Television and the rest of the Doomsayers, even the very real possibility of a false positive could potentially ruin the reputation of a sport that really is trying to clean up. The entire field could be fed bread and water for months leading up to the Tour but if a highly sensitive spectrometer in France has an optic that is slightly degraded or out of alignment - a false positive could surface and “destroy the reputation of the Tour and the sport.”

But Clerc doesn’t really want to admit that last part, now does he? The Cloak of Invincibility which shrouds the drug testing labs prevents this from even being an acknowledged possibility. And yet again, Expectations are unmanaged and therefore unrealistic. And the sport suffers.

With this in mind, I can’t help but recall what happened to Phil Zajicek and Scott Moninger a few years ago as examples of what constitutes a “positive result” and how there are many shades of grey in the world of Doping. Does anyone really think those two were evil cheaters? Or, more likely, do you view them as unfortunate individuals who fell victim to unforeseen and somewhat uncontrollable events – but were branded with a scarlet D nonetheless?

Again, is it rational to fear that an unforeseen and uncontrollable event, isolated to one individual, will make all prior and existing efforts of everyone else involved in the sport less valid?

Additionally, does anyone really believe that an “incident-free” event or sport is truly 100% clean? I don’t remember many drug busts in Major League Baseball back in the Canseco days, do you? A legitimate positive result should be viewed as evidence that cyclists are human beings capable of deceit and that the sport has a testing system that is able to catch cheaters. The harder you look, the more you find.

We can and should hope for a “clean” Tour de France. But we should not expect it.

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