Businesses need to look beyond dazzling winning performances to find the real gold at the Olympics
At the London 2012 Olympics, Mo Farah enthralled us on consecutive Saturday evenings with two golds on the track. Jessica Ennis inspired us with her heroic winning performances in the Heptathlon. The GB cyclists day after day dazzled on the road and velodrome, delivering a total of eight gold medals.
Leadership and transformation
When we ask what can business learn from these Olympic achievements, we are naturally drawn to the awe-inspiring performances of the medal winners. Those with the highest profiles will be much in demand as motivational speakers. I’ve attended these events and even held for a fleeting moment, the speaker’s gold medal!It is indeed inspiring to hear first-hand, the stories of courage, dedication, self-belief, focus and commitment and for a moment to ‘touch gold’. Whilst many of their success stories provide valuable lessons, it is not where the real gold is to be found.
Over the last decade, the GB Cycling Team has been transformed, rising relentlessly to dominate its field, since coming away from the Athens Olympics with just four medals. At London 2012, they won twelve from a total of fourteen road and track cycling events. Eight out of those twelve medals were gold, matching their performance in Beijing four years earlier.
So, how has the GB Cycling Team achieved this transformation, sustaining its dominant position? Firstly, leadership. Dave Brailsford, the Performance Director of British Cycling has created an organisation culture in which people can thrive.
No member of the coaching team has a role considered more important than others – everyone is equally integral to success. Nor are certain coaches assigned to certain riders. Each coach works in support of all.
Learning In unexpected places
Brailsford has coined the phrase ” aggregation of marginal gains” to describe the approach of his team to identifying every possible source of an increase in performance. In other words, if you improve everything by 1% that goes into riding a bike, you will get a significant overall increase. They did this by focusing on aerodynamics, biomechanics, physiology, sports medicine and nutrition.
They also paid attention to less obvious factors such as sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are travelling and washing your hands properly to minimise infection.
If you clean between your hands properly, you will get ill a little less and in a sport where margins of victory are very narrow, that can make the difference between gold and silver. British Cycling had the humility to learn from others beyond their field.
The pillow idea came from the Royal Ballet. The emphasis on hygiene was the result of talking to surgeons about avoiding illness.
A culture in which people can thrive
To identify what businesses can learn from Olympic achievements, we have to look beyond the medal-winning performances. We must dig much deeper into the leadership and culture of the organisations that support the athletes.
When we do, we find, as in the case of British Cycling, that there are many practical small steps that everyone involved can take that together lead to very significant overall increases in performance.