Olympic, or Fools Gold – Beware the Olympic analogy bandwagon

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” – Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games

As a business with an Olympic heritage, we’ve done our fair share of analogies when it comes to ‘what work can learn from the Olympics’ and you’ll even find some of that in other Kitbags here.

Having worked in different commercial environments since 2003, we’re also pretty experienced at knowing when the whole Olympic analogy breaks down, because fundamentally it’s just a different human performance challenge to the world of work. Given we’ve got this unique perspective, we thought we’d share some of the thinking that will help you.

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What goes on

There are certain things about the work environment and the Olympic environment that are very different, and very often there are oversimplified messages about Olympic champions and their lessons that people feel obliged to force fit into work.

Five performance truths

Here are some Olympic Performance truths that we use to help us find which stuff flies and which stuff should be gently laid to rest.

  1. Olympians train a huge amount and compete relatively little. Usually at least the polar opposite of the world of work. Because of this significant difference, you have to think hard about the value of any message that is about training and preparation.
  2. Olympians have a compelling date in mind that will not change. So, everything they do is designed with a very specific future date in mind, which promotes a feedforward, continuous improvement way of working.
  3. Olympians have a coach working with them every day, playing a crucial role in maintaining motivation, building confidence and guiding the entire mission. Having another person constantly collaborating on your performance makes implementation of essential development work much easier.
  4. Olympians get to very clearly see whether they’ve won or lost. The exactness of scoring systems or having finish lines in sport makes knowledge of success and failure much simpler.
  5. Olympians have choice and no choice in a much more stark sense. They can choose to sign up to go for another Olympics, but if they don’t make the qualifying standard at any point, they can be cut from the team.

Three things to do

  1. Be ready to translate any Olympic metaphor by focusing on Performance first (not results). Human Performance is the connecting challenge faced by Sport and Business. So, be ready to focus your performance requirements that add value, rather than the promise of results.
  2. Be ready to ask, “How much are we doing something like this already?” The chances are that you’ve seen something similar before or have your own version of something that’s similar to the ‘new’ concept you’re hearing about. Take stock of your current high performance habits and know the value they bring.
  3. Look back at what everyone got excited about around the time of the last Olympics (major sporting competition, etc.), and get ready to see similar things come around again, so be ready to search for the new and potentially valuable stuff.