Lance and Enron: The Greatest Innovators in the World

Lance the Innovator: Lance Armstrong, in my book, is one of the greatest innovators in history. In one of the most challenging, highly contested, well funded and competitive “industries” in the world, where fighting the elements for 20 days on the bike for 6 hours a day tends to eliminate much of the luck and timing of more singular contests, Lance managed to dominate and win the world’s most difficult contest for 7 straight years while making a fortune and a hero out of himself. As it happens, Enron, a company where I spent more than 3 years, also won an exclusive title of the "Most Innovative" company by Fortune magazine 7 years in a row while making many fortunes for its executives.

Lance did so through a single-minded focus AND the power of innovation, thinking “outside the jar” to identify “whitespace” opportunities to compete and win the yellow seven times.

The innovations he helped usher in to the world of cycling come on many fronts and not just the obvious like lighter bikeframes, lighter wheels, ribbed skinsuits. It also included organization and governance of a team with a very, very specific training regimen designed for one thing only – to win the biggest event in cycling – the Tour de France. Wind tunnels and the perfect tuck to reduce drag, a higher cadence to reduce muscle fatigue, more time in the saddle on the climbs, a specialized diet where each meal was weighed to replace exactly the lost body mass, consultations with experts from around the world to identify opportunities to win – all these were innovative builds to the previous approach.

It was only natural that the science Lance was analyzing would show that increasing the ability to process oxygen (more red blood cells through EPO and blood transfusions) and recovering faster (steroids and cortisone) were adjacent innovations to the core of training harder and suffering the most. He had, as he has shared, no guilt at all about it.

Lanced tilted the field in his favor in every single possible aspect. Was he the best ever? Yes he was: no one has climbed so many mountains so fast – recent times up the famous mountains on the Tour are more the 15% slower than during the “Lance Era”.

But therein lies the rub: innovation is necessarily “absent of values”. It is part of the process – to “diverge” and suspend judgment and restrictions to determine opportunities to find new ways to compete. One of the primary predictors of a creative or innovative approach is the willingness to step outside the status quo, to break rules.

Societies have a cycle of creative destruction, with “rulers” and “innovators” trading power. That said, an innovation that is launched, without a filter of ethics, runs the risk of being criminal. In fact, it is most likely true that many, if not most of the world’s most famous criminals and villains were also innovators. I spent 3 years at Enron, a company rewarded by Fortune magazine 7 times (odd!) as the “Most Innovative”. It was true, they were… but I wish we could withdraw their accolades and awards like was done for Lance. (I did my part to try – on the day they closed their doors we tried to steal their famous rotating cube from the lobby but were thwarted by security.)

Tonight Lance went on Oprah and confessed what had become obvious to those watching closely for a while: that he had aggressively orchestrated one of the single greatest frauds of all time.

In the history of the world has there been a more visible public figure that so actively said one thing while doing the exact opposite without shame? Lance didn’t dodge the question of doping, he didn’t hide his head when approached, he didn’t focus attention elsewhere, instead he actively attacked others fallen from the omertà, sued former friends and supporters, and enlisted the public, moral and political support of millions to aid in his cover-up through sheer pressure.

Indeed despite my own misgivings knowing some of those around him, I was in the camp of “just leave well enough alone” for years, and silently criticized the wife of my friend and teammate Frankie Andreu while openly criticizing Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. I was wrong.

Innovation is almost certainly the answer to many of the world’s most pressing business challenges. That said Lance saga also shows that one of the success criteria for all innovations has to be an ethical filter. It sounds obvious, but “implicit” expectations of the most obvious sort have repeatedly failed – let’s not make that mistake again.

Postscript: my only conversation with Lance

Flashforward - 1 year to 1991. Back at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for another camp. The Junior World Cycling Championships are taking place at the same time, and I catch up with cycling friends Jessica Grieco and George Hincapie. Jessica and I spend a good deal of time together and that other cyclist I only know by name, Lance Armstrong, notices.

After the Junior World Cycling Championships were over, we attended a house party near the Olympic Training Center (OTC) with skater and Olympic silver medalist Eric Flaim and some of the other skaters and hooked up with George and Jessica and met many of the other cyclists. At one point mid-way through the evening, after a long discussion with Jessica, I was motioned outside by a “minion” of Lance’s. Lance was only 19 but already had assumed command of the junior ranks. He was waiting for me out front of the house and asked me if I would walk and talk with him. It was very “movie-like.” I said, “sure.”

We walked to the curb, and then sat down. He then proceeded to ask a series of targeted questions about Jessica (who was not without her charms) with that same, now famous, hawk-like stare. He started with, “How did you ‘get her’?” I explained that we were just friends and that we were not romantically involved. He immediately followed up with “Well, how can I ‘get her’?” and then asked a series of very specific questions. “What kind of music does she like? What does she read? Does she wear perfume? What are her hobbies outside cycling? Is she smart? What’s her favorite subject in school?” and then again, “How can I ‘get her’?”

I can imagine Lance and Chris Carmichael planning his comeback in much a similar fashion, “how can I ‘get tour #8’?”

I tried to be helpful, but found it all a little bit like a science project and wanted to ask, “what does, ‘get’ mean, exactly?” but I didn’t. Later I saw him talking to Jessica with some of the same intensity – though he did bother to smile and laugh.