10 things Business can learn from London 2012

Doing my research on this post it soon become apparent that I wasn’t the first to try and link Great Britain’s Olympic success with business, Mervyn King (Governor of the Bank of England) and political pundits from all sides have been jumping on the band wagon (so with with awareness of confirmation bias) I’ll attempt to do the same.

1. Have a clear vision

I know I’m starting with a quote from the Tour de France, but it still shows clearly what a single-minded, vision shared by the whole team can do to help get things done.

“I’d never have said that we could do it unless I really believed that we could. A lot of people laughed when we said that we could win this race in five years with a clean British rider. But we were serious about it, we’d done our homework, we knew what Bradley was capable of and what a British team would be capable of – and we set about it.”

Dave Brailsford

As Peter Senge says “It’s not what the vision is, it’s what the vision does.”.

2. Money won’t motivate

Even before the Australian swimming team had left for final preparations the sport’s executives changed the funding for swimmers to a high performance model. This meant swimmers would be paid a small base rate and a large fee if and only if they were successful.

Perhaps if the management team had taken some time to review Dan Pinks work on taking money off the table, and using purpose, mastery and autonomy to gain the results they so desired then the team wouldn’t have delivered its worst result in 20 years.

In the Team GB’s cycling team did just that, securing funding to pay competitors rather than having them train after work. This hasn’t been missed by those involved in the financial sector.

“Motivation is more than mere money. Bankers should concentrate on laying a solid foundation for customers, not focusing on making quick cash.”

Mervyn King

3. Think long term

Olympians can’t help but think long term, their chance to shine only happens once every 4 years and most of Team GB had 7 years to plan their approach to their home Olympics.

In business it is much harder, month and quarter targets are the norm, taking a longer term view is hard but imagine what could be done if organisations did this all the time.

4. Work bloody hard

Chris Hoy, trains 35 hours a week and dare not even walk to the shops as he is meant to be recovering for his next session. This kind of dedication sums up this rather overlooked learning, as does this paraphrased quote from Jason Kenny (team and individual sprint gold).

“Erm, I don’t know, hard work, I guess”

Jason Kenny

Too often in both the euphoria surrounding the Olympics and in creating high performance organisations this rather simple learning is over looked.

5. Don’t be afraid of tough decisions

During the 2012 Olympics the cycling team had some tough decisions to make with people like Andy Tennant, Wendy Houvenaghel and even Chris Hoy being pulled from races they desperately want to compete in.

“You’ve got to take the personal element out of it, look at the data and be professional,”

Dave Brailsford

I feel the same approach must be taken within business, too often decisions are made simply to avoid conflict and a hard conversation, when things should be kept focused on the reality of the situation.

6. Always learning

If there is one thing any team in any organisation can take from the success of Team GB it is their constant search for improvements.

“It’s all of it, the science, the training, the coaches, but most of all we point the mirror at ourselves and ask ‘how can we get better?'”

Chris Hoy

The same is surely true for organisations of all types.

7. Devil is in the detail

This is perhaps the most often quoted “secret sauce” behind the Team GB haul of medals in the Velodrome, whether it is how they wash their hands, which pillow they sleep on, how round their wheels are or spending hours in a wind tunnel.

“They’re tiny things but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

Dave Brailsford

Sometimes this attention to detail is lost in the rush to deliver results.

8. Training Partners Help

Having a training partner at the same level really helps.

  • Mo Farah and Galen Rupp
  • Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake
  • Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome
  • Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee

I can see the parallels with XP style Pair Programming, the principle behind it can be applied to more roles than just coding.

9. Everyone needs a therapist

Steve Peters [the psychologist Brailsford brought in to help his riders just before the Athens Olympics] Other key staff include sports psychologist Steve Peters, described by Brailsford as “the best appointment I’ve made”. He has helped riders control and eliminate irrational thoughts.

Foreign coaches like Jan van Eijden and Shane Sutton are here because they enjoy it. Success begets success.

Head coach Shane Hutton, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, acts as a mentor for other coaches.

10. Measure the right things

As the Australian Swimming team found out, judging success by position doesn’t work too well. Instead keep the goals within the boundaries of the team or individuals control.

“If you look at your own performance and think, ‘Am I happy with that? Is that the best ride I could have done?’ And the answer’s yes, then you can look at everybody else and see if they went faster. That’s how I look at it.”

Dave Brailsford

Too often organisations set unrealistic goals that de-motivate and cause serious systemic problems. Teams should be asking, am I being as effective as possible.


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