Olympics lessons


Date: 26th Aug 2016

Vic Davies is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing in Bucks Business School and writes here about lessons for business from Team GB's Olympics success.

The success of Team GB at the Rio Olympics has seen the UK media eulogising their glories as an implicit counter balance to the uncertainty surrounding the 'what now' question prevalent since the country voted to leave the EU.


'Brexit yes, but into what type of future?' has been implicit in media commentary and an emerging concern of business. A failure by Team GB to achieve its goals and targets in Rio would have psychologically added to this feeling of uncertainty.

The success of the team has therefore for a brief period pushed back on these fears. The perhaps natural inclination will now be to look at what created this winning mentality that saw the team outperform its home-based results at the London 2012 Olympics to achieve Britain's best-ever medal tally, and which saw Britain momentarily great again with second place in the medals table above sporting and economic rivals, China and Germany.

In circumstances like this the natural inclination of the British business community, whose male-orientated bias often defines itself in the competitive language of sport of 'winners and losers', is a knee-jerk tendency to look at 'what lessons can we learn' from how GB achieved this success 'playing away' against international competition.

This has happened before, notably after England's Rugby Union team won the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia and head coach Sir Clive Woodward's coaching and man-management methods became the elixir that UK business wanted to drink. Much the same thing happened after the Beijing and the London Olympics, when the Woodward school of management morphed into the Sir Dave Brailsford school, based upon his management of the GB cycling team's success at those Games. Unfortunately neither of these cures appear to have worked, or more correctly UK management failed to understand how to administer the cure.

Rio success

Vic DaviesThis time around there is no stand-out sports management guru connected with the Rio success, whose words UK business folk can flock to hear or whose books they can buy. This time around, however, British management may at last have had the opportunity to see the real way in which success in a competitive world can be achieved.

Time and again UK medal winners at the 2016 Olympics thanked 'the team' that helped them, and by 'the team' they meant not just fellow athletes but the host of others who now work with sportspeople to improve their performance and win medals and trophies. Some of these have always been there, such as the trainer or the coach, but these days one can add sports psychologists, nutritionists, equipment technologists, data gathers and analysts, and a host of other specialists.

Beyond this team is a willingness to learn from others in the shape of the links that different sports forge with other sports to utilise knowledge for their benefit. So both GB's cycling and rowing have used knowledge gleaned from work by F1 motorsport company McLaren. Key to this is that all this is focused on one thing, namely constantly improving a performance that can be measured, in both its development and in its ultimate manifestation, in competition against rivals.

Here the organisational structure and operational procedures are geared towards incremental change across different parts of a project. This bears a resemblance to how the aerospace industry and digital technology companies, and creative organisations like Pixar, work. These organisations are less hierarchical in structure, with data seen not as the answer, as many who proclaim so-called 'Big Data' can be,  but as part of the whole, designed to be another component of achieving success, and not an end in itself.

Team GB

With Team GB, planning is proactive and when it is fixed on a timeline, these timelines are longer term, not just to the next Olympics, but the one eight years hence. Look at all this and then look at how many business organisations still operate.

They often still think that the component parts of their operation are its strategy, with structures that are still hierarchical and slow to even react let alone be proactive. Their vision is confined to the time horizon of the end of the next financial set of results, with no urge to create a culture of constant improvement, learning and research, and development looking like it was funded by Scrooge. Such businesses see running training schemes as equating to being a learning organisation, whereas Team GB see training as just part of the constant process of learning.

These are the lessons that business Britain needs to learn from Team GB's success in Rio if it wants to beat the world and, post-Brexit, be 'faster, higher, stronger' than the rest.

* Vic Davies spent 13 years as a full board director at what is now the WPP media agency and Mediacom. He has taught advertising management and digital communications at Bucks New University since 2007.


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