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.

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17 responses

  1. But he is an innovative sociopath. He finally got together with a good publicist and did the smart thing by going on Oprah. If he had been really smart he would have done this earlier. Haven’t been able to see the interview but what I have read I get the feeling this is all done for show and not out of any real remorse.

  2. What Slacker said! I did not see it, but I am sure it is missing the appropriate mea culpa and contrition. I am sorry I was caught is different than I am sorry for what I have done. BTW, he really does need to reach out to people he has hurt, and not just those with multi-million dollar lawsuits pending.

    Nice piece, John, I enjoy your perspective and appreciate your writing.

  3. I watched the interview, and he definitely seemed like a sociopath. Gary is right – Lance only is sorry he got caught. He showed no real emotion or remorse for his actions. John, I’m curious about your stance that innovation is necessarily absent of values. I disagree. The best innovators should be able to think outside the box without being immoral or unethical. At least I would hope so. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but maybe Steve Jobs? Ben Franklin? Perhaps they walked the line and tiptoed over it, but they didn’t totally ignore it the way Lance did. Though, I’m not an expert on any of these men, I would like to think we can innovate and keep our values intact.

    • I completely agree – everything we saw from Lance last night is staged. He admitted, openly and candidly, with real remorse (for getting caught) to ALL the things that have already been proven and NONE of the things that could get him in real legal or financial trouble. He then hedged on any situation where admitting fault would lose him money or a criminal sentence (Betsy Andreu’s deposition, lying under oath) and then continued to outright lie on unproven accusations that all circumstancial evidence suggest to be true (the Tour de Swiss coverup where he paid off the doping agency with a massive donation right around the same time).

      I hear what you are saying Brenda, but I do know that when we do innovation work here at MD we try very hard to remove ALL judgement and “in the jar” thinking during the ideation process. You can imagine that if we are dealing w/ products/services with personal privacy, regulatory and other ethical and legal issues, we, frankly, actively ignore those during this phase as they limit exploration. When we were working on a project about helping older people say in their homes safely longer through medical technology and sensors, we brought in the world’s leading zoo cage designer to help. He held NONE of the constraints about privacy or “dignity” that are required to deal with real people and assuredly many of those initial ideas were likely “unethical” had they been implemented. But of course they weren’t, however, they did push the thinking. In full disclosure, there’s rarely a day goes by that an illegal and/or unethical idea doesn’t come into my mind (like stowing away for a year on a cruise ship for example, or living a homeless lifestyle staying in fancy hotels attending conferences for meals, and sleeping in propped open rooms, or hidden spaces : )) You get the idea.

      • John, I love your unethical and illegal ideas! But it’s one thing to remove all judgment and constraints when brainstorming, it’s quite another to ignore them as you execute those ideas. Not to mention gaining monetarily, ruining other people’s lives, and feeling no guilt or shame about any of it. That’s just nuts.
        I love your insider point of view. Thanks for blogging!

    • I think that the very nature of innovation is to cross boundaries not previously crossed, with exception. I know some feel that all innovation is somewhat derivative. Who was it, Newton, that said that he accomplished what he did by standing on the shoulders of giants. But it is one thing to challenge existing convention, and another to blatantly break rules, rules that were there for a purpose. Sometimes I think the powers that be go to far in top tube length, positions, seat post angle, weight, and such. But I think the intent is to keep the playing field level. The prize goes to who has the best abilities, plans, executes these plans, who can suffer the best and a certain amount of luck. Some how transfusing blood and using EPO goes beyond this spirit.

      I always did admire Lance’s attention to detail and his maniacal focus on things. As John said, is somewhat logical that he would push the pharmaceutical aspect of cycling to its limit, and beyond.

  4. As always, enjoy your writing about your experiences and points of view John. Thanks.

    Even in your examples of highly focused innovation efforts, there seem to be rules and ethics in place to “keep the ‘monsters’ in the lab”, which seems right and reassuring. Success without integrity and honor really isn’t success is it? At least not in a larger or longer term context or truly sustainable way.

    As for Lance, what a one dimensional, self-serving a-hole. It will take more than Oprah to redeem him. Let him give all his ill-gotten fortune away, and, make it up to the people whose lives he’s hurt, and be sorry for more than getting caught, and then maybe then some kind of real redemption can begin.

    Lance’s control and arrogance even in attempts at apology don’t surprise me. I’m a little more surprised by some people (a small number it seems, thankfully) who are willing to excuse what he did “because everyone was probably doing it” or because the ends justify the means at least in their minds.

  5. Excellent post John. And I do agree that the process of innovation should be absent of values for the reasons you suggest. Unfortunately it also seems like Lance shares many characteristics of CEOs who have also gotten into trouble – intense drive, singular focus on a goal, etc. They often say that the higher up you get in a business the more lonely it becomes. You become the personification of the organization you lead and often eliminate the people that are different from you either behaviorally or cognitively. In the process you may lose a critical checkpoint to your intense and singular focus on the goal. As a result, an appropriate valueless “process” of innovation may become a valueless “implementation” of innovation.

    • I agree Alan. I also figure that when you become a figure of singular focus like Lance and a lot of celebrities and allow yourself to be surrounded by only sycophants and yes men/women, then you start to believe the BS you’re being fed and transform to a megalomaniac and narcissist – that is some do, some don’t.

  6. Enjoyed the article and agree except for one subtlety. To be innovative means to step outside the box in NEW ways, which he did in many ways, but using EPDs was not new, not innovative. When there’s a rule prohibiting X, no one can claim being innovative for doing X. I am legally prohibited from hacking your bank account to steal your money. If I did so anyway, would you call me innovative?

    The guy may have truly innovated up the wazoo, but who cares? If Jimmy Carter innovated as he built Houses for Humanity, and then revealed known safety short cuts like asbestos and lead that are hurting people, no one would care about the innovations. Ten rights don’t justify a wrong. It’s like a gourmet meal with a roach hiding in the desert. May not be fair, impartial, or holistic, but who cares. The entire meal is now spoiled.

    • Very true that EPO and other PEDs were not new, that said the innovation was the scientific usage of those PEDs and the incredible lengths they went to obtain the drugs and/or infusions. Training camps in the islands off the coast of Africa to avoid detection, pulling the entire team bus over on an overpass pretending a flat tire while the whole team took a transfusion lying on the floor with blood bags – definitely innovative in my book. Evil, wrong, but innovative.

      AND ruined fair chances for many many truly talented athletes. A number of the top cyclists in those days are now questioning whether they might have been good enough had the cheating not been going on…

  7. It’s just a shame that we don’t look to Wall Street for all these characteristics we expect of a sweaty cyclist. Surely those folks have FAR more TRUE influence on our lives than this guy. We’re perseverating on the tree as the forest sings a much larger tune.

    • Actually in Hamiltons memoir it becomes clear Carmichael was a front. A stand in for micheli Ferrari. All those interviewed say Carmichael never coached lance and was not involved. He got the fame for doing nothing. Probably didn’t know.

  8. Haven’t read Hamilton’s memoir. Probably should, I have plenty of time too. Need to stop trying to find the end of the internet.

  9. I don’t think eating all your meals at conferences is immoral. It was, in fact, assigned to me as an article idea in the 1990s by New York magazine but it seemed like too much work. Great piece, John.

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