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Going for Gold: What can business leaders learn from Team GB’s success in Rio?
I was sat at home on Saturday afternoon watching some Olympics action, during which the BBC host Hazel Irvine held an informal interview with Liz Nicholl the Chief Exec of UK Sport centred around the success of Team GB at the Rio games. It struck me that many of Liz’s insights were also remarkably pertinent to current business leaders:
- You need a compelling vision that people can connect to
Liz referred to Team GB’s 2013 published vision “for building a stronger, more sustainable high performance system, to support British athletes to win Olympic and Paralympic medals for many years to come.”
- Vision alone delivers nothing
Vision needs translating into very tangible strategic goals/objectives. Ones that we can track progress against, and deliver interventions where required to stay on track. So what did Liz say about this? Team GB’s specific goal for the Rio games was clear – a target of 66 medals – one better than London 2012 and very specific.
- The need for alignment
Liz talked about the complexity when it comes to this third key ingredient in their recipe for success: Alignment of resources. The complexity here was enormous – from trying to align so many stakeholders ̶from governing bodies to lottery funding; from the government to individual athletes and their individual coaching plans. The key to ensuring that all of these resources pulled in the same direction was their integration with the overall plan.
Continuous improvement in action: Team GB’s medal tally in Rio 2016 and London 2012 
This morning, Tom Fordyce, BBC Chief sports writer in Rio wrote :
“It has been an Olympic fiesta like never before for Britain: their best medal haul in 108 years, second in the medal table, the only host nation to go on to win more medals at the next Olympics… Only 20 years ago, GB were languishing 36th in the Atlanta Olympics medal table, their entire team securing only a single gold between them. This is the story of a remarkable transformation”
A remarkable two-decade transformation indeed, however also one of sustained incremental improvement year on year which was clearly the purpose of Liz’s goal to go one better than London 2012, the final medal haul of 67 achieving slightly more than that.
Despite her unassuming confidence in the outcome of these games, there isn’t anything more unpredictable than sport. However far less is left to chance when a delivery plan is tracked and linked clearly to strategic goals and sometimes making tough decisions.
It is for this reason that Liz and the rest of the team GB sporting elite believed that their plan would lead to delivery. And it didn’t let them down.
So the recipe, in summary:
- A compelling vision. Check.
- Specific strategic goals to deliver this vision. Check.
- A plan of action that delivers these goals, cascaded to and owned by appropriate stakeholder. Check.
UK sport knew the critical chain for success and they delivered.
What is striking are the similarities between the Team GB sports system, and our organisational systems of today. Each is large and very complex at first glance. Each has many parts, all of which interrelate in some way. Finally each involves many different stakeholders who would often place their own agenda before that of the whole.
But what organisations often fail to do is execute their strategy using the three-step recipe of success used by team GB. Somewhere in the process the critical chain gets broken leading to deviations from the plan further down the organisation. With these common problems in mind, what is stopping leaders of today’s organisations taking a leaf out of Team GBs book in their approach to strategic execution?
Yes it might not be as simple to create a culture of continuous improvement in practice as it is in writing, but as the look in our winning athletes eyes prove, the rewards are worth it.