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Business Lessons from Tough Mudder

This is a guest post from Stacey Cerniuk, the CEO, President, and Founder of Annex Consulting. Expect it to be the first of many; Stacey’s experiences have given him plenty to talk about.
Four friends and I recently completed Tough Mudder Oregon.  It is a demanding 20 km course over rough terrain that includes 20+ obstacles designed by British Special Forces.  What does being covered in mud have to do with business?  More than you might think.  Here are five lessons from Tough Mudder and how they apply to business.

Set a Goal

I would describe myself as reasonably self-motivated when it comes to exercise.  I have done 150 workouts per year (i.e., 3 days per week for 50 weeks) for the last eight years.  But there was no question that I was in a rut.  So timing was perfect when my buddy suggested we do Tough Mudder.  Once I researched it, I was hooked.  Our 5-person team set a goal by selecting a Tough Mudder event, location and date eight months in the future.  Suddenly, all of us were very motivated to start training.  The same thing happens in business – setting challenging but realistic corporate goals as a team creates strong alignment across the organization and gets people working together to achieve common targets.

Create a Plan

Given that Tough Mudder’s tag line is “Probably the Toughest Event on the Planet”, we knew it wasn’t going to be a piece of cake.  Good planning would be key to our success.  For example, Tough Mudder requires a combination of endurance (e.g., running 20 km, often uphill) and strength (e.g., climbing 10-foot walls and conquering monkey bars), so focusing only on running or only on weight lifting would not be enough.  Our plan needed to include both types of training, not to mention the importance of nutrition and hydration. In business, goals are useless without action plans defining how to achieve them.  As a certified Project Management Professional since 2000, I am well aware that the #1 reason why projects fail is due to poor planning.  Many projects are doomed often before they even begin due to unrealistic deadlines, unavailable resources, limited budgets, or an uncommitted sponsor.  When developing a plan, it is important to understand the difference between doing the right things and doing things right.  For example, I have seen magnificent plans (doing things right), but for projects that were not the top priority of the organization (not doing the right things).

Execute the Plan

The hardest part of preparing for Tough Mudder was obviously the months of exercise completed as we executed our training plan.  It’s not easy to run in the early morning or do weight training after a long day of work.  There are no short cuts when jogging a planned 14 km route.  Training takes a lot of hard work and perseverance.  I was a sprinter in high school, not a long distance runner, so my body initially protested the change as I tried to run 10% farther every 1-2 weeks. Execution is critical in business.  Any smart person can create a corporate strategic plan.  What separates the good firms from the great is execution of the plan.  Without execution, the strategic plan just sits on a shelf collecting dust.  But it’s not easy to execute.  It takes a lot of effort as well as discipline to maintain focus on the company’s highest priorities.  Execution drives change.  People don’t like change and some employees will struggle with it.  But if your organization is not moving forward, it will get passed by other businesses that are.  Just as there are no short-cuts to getting in shape, there are no short-cuts to building a great business and there is no such thing as an overnight success.  Hard work combined with smart work (remember, we need to be doing the right things) over time will generate great results.

Achieve More Through Teamwork

Tough Mudder is not a race.  It is a team event that preaches “no Mudder left behind”.   The event includes obstacles that are difficult to complete without the help of your teammates.  The  Lumberjacked obstacle required boosting each other over large horizontal logs up to eight feet in the air.  Many people needed help climbing over the 10-foot Berlin Walls.  Everest is a sprint up a quarter-pipe where team members wait to catch the hands of other team members before hauling them up and over the wall (see photo below).  But the obstacle that most exemplified teamwork in action was Mud Mile.  It required us to climb over 8-foot mounds of mud while standing in waist deep muddy water.  Nobody we saw was able to scale the extremely slick walls of mud on their own.  Instead, we worked as a team and boosted each member of our group up and over the walls.  In fact, we assisted many other people and teams over the walls as well.  The most difficult obstacle on the course turned out to be the most fun because we worked together as a team to achieve our goal (see photo below). teamstacey In business, high performing teams can achieve more than a collection of individuals.  Two plus two can equal five when a team movesfrom forming and storming to norming and performing.  Annex uses a specific strategic planning and execution framework that focuses the organization and creates alignment across our entire team.  Many hands make light work of our quarterly priorities. hooray


It is important to celebrate successes.  At Tough Mudder, when you cross the finish line, you get a famous orange headband and a glass of beer to celebrate not only completing the event, but the months of training that went into it (see photo below). celebration At Annex, we set team goals every quarter.  If we achieve our goals, we earn a team reward.  Some of our team rewards have included rock climbing, oil painting, elaborate holiday season parties, Whistler weekend getaways, and a trip to Vegas.


I highly recommend Tough Mudder as a great event to do with friends.  The lessons we learned are that great results can be achieved by setting goals, creating action plans to achieve them, working hard to execute the plan, and leveraging a strong team to achieve more than individuals can.  Follow those simple steps and there will be many opportunities to celebrate future successes.  For more information about Tough Mudder, visit

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