Olympic performance without the Olympics

Updated: Aug 20, 2019



The following article is a summary of an event run by The Foundation in 2012. The event was held on 20th June and focused on the Olympics – how they have been used to improve different kinds of performance, and what useful lessons could be taken into less Olympian situations. Our speakers were Steve Williams, two-time Olympic gold medalist who recently climbed Everest and walked to the North Pole, Dr Pete Bonfield, CEO of BRE, an international thought-leader in the field of construction, and in parallel, on secondment as leader of construction projects for the ODA, building the Olympic venues in a way that has been one of the best run and most sustainable building projects of any kind, and Simon Scott, a former Royal Marine who coaches and advises Olympians and business leaders with Olympian challenges, running marathons up mountains in his spare time. Their conversation has been summarised by Simon Caulkin, formerly Management Editor at the Observer.

A built legacy is not enough: when the games are over, business and individuals should use the energy, commitment and science that drive Olympic sporting achievement to inspire an enduring economic legacy.

When people talk about the Olympic legacy, they usually mean the physical heritage: sports stadia, improved roads and transport links, perhaps the helter-skelter sculpture and regeneration of a rundown part of town. We’ll get some memorable TV footage and (we hope) warm memories of Team GB success. But even that seems a small and rather literal return from a £9bn budget (more of that later). Should we be daring to think of a different, less tangible kind of legacy from these few weeks of sport? Could a celebration of people running, jumping and throwing things provide a shot in the arm for a nation toiling under austerity and the second dip of the recession? Are there lessons that might spur the economy permanently to raise its game?

If they had been asked to vote, participants at the end of a crowded and enthusiastic Forum on ‘Olympic performance without the Olympics’ on 22 June would almost certainly have answered ‘yes’. As the audience heard, the games offer powerful, even inspirational, lessons at both corporate and individual levels. Indeed, if project management was a medal event, the gold would be hanging round the neck of the Olympic Development Authority before the games even start. The ODA has just handed over one of the world’s largest, most complex and scrutinised building projects on time and of the order of half a billion under budget – a budget that was ‘way less’ than the £9bn figure we have become accustomed to for the games as a whole, according to Dr Peter Bonfield, the ODA lead on construction, one of the Forum speakers. Not only that, but it also set new standards for sustainability, legacy and regeneration.

The challenges were, well, Olympian. When London won the 2012 games six years ago, the ODA was a name, with no history or culture and just 20 people. Of the sites, many were derelict and others contaminated, situated within one of the most densely populated areas in the world. No-leeway time and budget constraints – ‘we really, really couldn’t be late’ – were further tightened when the financial crisis hit. And of course this was Britain, and public sector to boot, with all the pessimism and negativity that went with it. Of 150 people who emailed Bonfield on his secondment to the ODA (doubling up his existing job as chief executive of BRE, formerly the Building Research Establishment) 120 told him not to touch it.

Yet the achievement triumphantly matches the ambition. An organisation that rapidly scaled up to 12,000 built its own culture of innovation, respect for people and uncompromising quality. Two million tons of concrete – at the peak one truck was arriving every 12 seconds – were poured and 20 million hours worked without a single serious accident -- the starting point, says Bonfield, a scientist by training, of sustainability in a part of the world where life expectancies are seven years shorter than at the other end of the Central Line on the London Underground. What's left of ‘the greenest games ever' will form the nucleus of the largest park to be built in Europe for 150 years.

The key? A systems approach in which everything done was judged not just on cost but against a balanced scorecard of priorities that also included ethics, health and safety, energy use and sustainability. Clear leadership and a culture that unlocked innovation in people and companies who were astonished to be asked their opinion also contributed mightily. (Construction workers employed by companies contracted to the ODA never want to work anywhere else again.) To be clear: the games construction project isn’t just Olympian in terms of what it has done: it has rewritten the book in terms of how to do it, which is – as recognised by commissions for subsequent work in China and Brazil – a legacy in itself.

The ODA’s effort was more akin to a marathon than a sprint. But it turns out that it has much in common with some of the sporting events. You might think, for example, that a four-year run-up to a six-minute rowing or cycling event was a fairly leisurely prospect. You’d be wrong. Talent, notes rower Steve Williams, twice Olympic gold medallist in the coxless fours, is nowhere near sufficient. The training schedule is a merciless six hours a day, seven days a week, with one Sunday off in four, or one in six in pre-Olympic year. And the practice is utterly focused: to hit ‘the gold medal time’ in that six-minute slot in August 2012, a time estimated and set by the coach, Jürgen Gröbler three years before, there is a target for every 500 metres the athletes row in the four years leading up to it. So tight are the timings that when in the run-up to Athens 2004 the team found itself five seconds down with five weeks to go, Gröbler challenged them to make up the difference one-tenth of a second at a time in each remaining outing.

The attitude to doing everything possible to make the boat go faster made itself felt in other ways too. When a scientist approached with a legal but unconventional idea to lessen wind resistance on the oars by adding a thin strip of plastic either side of the oar shaft, the initially sceptical team bought in when explained that ‘it was going to make us one-tenth of a second faster,’ recounts Williams. ‘And if you don’t know how that story ends, we won that race by eight one-hundredths of a second, and I'll tell you when you're in a race that close, thank God that you had the strip, and we had previously had the mentality, that allowed us to get every available one-tenth of a second into the boat’.

Like the Olympic construction project, the boat too is a system, all focused to one end – making the boat go faster. It’s no good the team being at peak performance if the boat as a whole isn’t; no good if everything else is optimised but one rower is off the pace. ‘A lot of it’s to do with rest and recovery, sleep and hydration. We talk about what happens away from the boat being more important than what happens in it. You develop these routines you live by – positive critical feedback, wash-up sessions after every practice so no problem is more than 90 minutes old – and the more you repeat the routines, the more they become habit and then instinct.’

Nor is it any good if having done everything right in training you freeze on the big day. Williams describes it as like learning to walk a narrow plank placed on the ground for four years, which is raised a mile into the sky when the Olympic final comes around. Four years of preparation, the lives and reputations of all involved, and the hopes of a nation are now on the line. Waiting stock-still on the start line, the difference between winning and losing comes down to just three things, says Williams: the race plan, practised until it becomes instinct, bullet-proof confidence based on stories of your best performances in the past, and 100 per cent concentration on getting the first stroke right, which is the only one you can directly influence.

To harness the energy generated by the Olympics, Simon Scott, for 11 years a commanding officer in the Royal Marines, and also an international-class swimmer, has two more elements: science and being able to create ‘a movement’, in other words the power of collective purpose. Science is necessary, says Scott, to turn inspiration into perspiration by means of ‘deliberate practice’, the filter through which talent and hard work are focused down to the ultimate purpose, whether going faster in pool or track or making good decisions under fire or in real time in business. (As it happens, Scott’s father initially literally wrote the book on ‘A Scientific Approach To Rowing’ in 1963, ‘so without my dad Steve might not be here’.) No one outdoes the Marines, says Scott, in studying the impact of practice on performance in the field. And for obvious reasons. ‘Their studies show 300 repetitions of good practice gives you muscle memory, 3,000 repetitions of good practice gives you muscle mastery: and without muscle mastery don’t expect it to happen when you're on the start line of an Olympic final. Don’t expect it to happen when you're being shot at, don’t expect it to happen when you're at the middle of a critical business situation’.

It’s almost impossible to achieve Olympic performance alone.

The power of collective purpose is well exemplified by two Olympic case studies, among many other. In the 1960s, recalls Scott, disgusted by the dismal state of British middle-distance running, Frank Horwill set up the British Milers Club. Fast forward to the 1980s, and ‘largely thanks to Frank’s leadership plus the systems that he put in place and the real science he brought to the sport in the 1980s, Britain had world records at every single distance from 800 up to 5,000m’. In one year between them Ovett, Coe, Cram and Moorhouse scooped every 1500m title in the world. Or take Team GB. In Atlanta in 1996, Britain won just one gold medal. By focusing and bringing science to bear on what it could hope to be good at, in Beijing that rose to 19. All of them, says Scott, involved movements – ‘a cycling movement, getting together and getting the science right, the rowing movement which was established by my dad, the sailing movement, fantastic, the swimming movement – the lesson is you can do this together, you can’t do it on your own.’

Of course, by definition not everyone can be an individual Olympic champion. There’s only one gold. But it is also true that Olympians come from unlikely sources. Williams didn’t attend a rowing school and barely won a race for five years. Nurture comes into play as well as nature. More subtly, in the right circumstances the energy and pride that drives individuals to sporting glory is also infectious among much larger groups. Think of the ODA. Perhaps we could think of it as ‘home advantage’ – a tantalising concept that business has rarely considered investigating. Whatever: it’s a fact, says Bonfield, that a little energy and pride harnessed over a lot of people is fairy dust that can and does elicit extraordinary performance from non-elite resources – and is there any better expression of the Olympic ambition than that?

The Foundation's view

What we took out of the evening directly from the conversation...

Whether on the track or in the office, Olympic performance requires a whole systems approach in which all the parts are focused on a clear and single aim

With science and determination, nurture can trump nature: only ‘deliberate practice’ can hone raw material into sustained performance, as in the Marines

What goes on ‘outside the boat’ is as important as what goes on inside. Values are part of performance

What we felt at the end of the evening, on reflection and thinking about the work we do...

The focus on performance, at a nitty gritty and very tangible level, is unusual to see in business but common in sport. And it IS translatable from one to the other. There’s the attitude (we’re going faster or we’re going backwards), the tough conversations in a constructive spirit (usually we see one or the other, not both), and the clarity of a four year plan broken down and tackled 500m at a time.

The creation of a movement by uniting a large group of people around a collective purpose, which is occasionally seen in sport to great effect, is also only occasionally seen in business. It seems to be a different kind of thing to what most business and business-people spend their time on, and yet a sense of why your organisation matters beyond the money needed to keep it going is rarely pursued to a level that is truly meaningful (the level needed to create a movement, rather than just widespread nodding in agreement).The achievement on the construction side of the Olympics shows how this kind of thinking can translate into results, and results to be proud of in this case – the greenest games ever, that just couldn’t be late and that still ended up significantly under budget. We’ve won some kind of conceptual gold medal already!

About The Foundation

We are a management consultancy working with all kinds of organisations to achieve customer-led success. This means tackling big organic growth challenges; growing faster, growing into new markets or fending off threats to growth by starting with what matters to customers and then making it work for the business as well.

The aim is to influence customer behaviour, but this is inherently tough. Why? Because people in any organisation naturally see the world from the inside-out, with colleagues close and customers distant, and lots of assumptions about how things work that aren't challenged.

We help clients look from the outside-in, re-connecting them with what customers really value (the problem they want to solve, not usually what the client sells), then finding new and better ways to create this value.

This means working both as expert advisors and facilitators. The issue with simply gathering outside-in information is that it lacks impact to get senior teams to tackle inconvenient truths in what customers want, and to believe their own organisation can be different.

By using ‘Immersion’, personal conversations with customers and leaders of organisations in other sectors who have tackled parts of their challenge, we help teams get around the natural and limiting inside-out beliefs that stand in their way. This helps them develop better answers for customers and new ways of achieving lasting success.

We answer three sizes of question:

Small – a new proposition or an improved customer experience

Medium-size – growing value per customer or improving retention (a sub-set of the former)

Large – creating customer-led business success, often by uncovering a true outward-looking purpose and the genuine belief needed for it to be acted on

Our clients include HSBC, JLR, O2, M&S and Ebay, with achievements including helping create Plan A at M&S, adding £100m of value to a Travelex travel money proposition, and giving Morrisons a competitive direction contributing to their return to growth.

Behind our work our most distinctive characteristic is our team and their outlook. Each individual is motivated to and experienced in crossing the border between the worlds of customers and business which often resist mixing well.

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