Watching an elite athlete or team perform phenomenally is certainly exciting and inspirational — but how feasible is it to simply apply winning approaches from sport to business? From my experience, I can see that there are clear parallels, but also some important differences.
The three core values of the Olympic movement — excellence, friendship and respect — are ruthlessly upheld.
As Jack Welsh has often pointed out, the managers who don’t share the organization’s values yet deliver the numbers [or the potential results in this case] are the people who need to leave since their continued participation can destroy the desired organizational culture.
Keep your eye on the finish line
Keep a steady eye on the ultimate outcome and seek small improvements to take you there. A 1 percent improvement doesn’t sound like much, but add up enough 1 percents and you’ll break records.
It is important to remember the difference between two types of goals – long-term, stretching outcome goals, like winning an Olympic medal. They’re what motivate you, what get you out of bed in the morning to put in the hard yards. The second type of goals are those that bring your attention “into the moment” to help you improve your technique. They’re much more subtle but just as important. These “in the moment” goals are how you improve in incremental steps. The Japanese call it “kaizan.” which translates as “constant innovation in tiny steps.” And it works wonders in business.
Perfection only comes from stability
True mastery in any field takes time and dedication in a stable environment: 10 years or around 10,000 hours of quality practice. There is plenty of evidence for this in sports and the performing arts — but how does this help in business? Is it even possible to achieve mastery as a manager?
Managers are professionals; their skill set brings together integration, co-ordination, context scanning and dealing with people. These so-called “soft skills” are anything but soft and, for most people, they take a long time to refine.
One thing managers have to deal with that athletes don’t is the amount of “churn” seen in most organizations. So, while we hear a lot about agility and responsiveness, too much change gets in the way because people need stability to learn and consolidate skills.
In business, this sort of change can be constant — and very damaging. When people feel they’ve lost control, they get more stressed and less motivated. It’s hardly an ideal environment in which to learn and consolidate new skills.
So what can businesses do? How can they adapt to near-constant change and provide enough stability for people to develop? Some companies have recognized the negative impact of initiative overload. They’ve taken the brave step of canning projects, freezing organizational structures and limiting the number of goals that managers can set.
One of the great misconceptions leaders often have is their need to have all the answers and appear to be perfect all of the time. The answer lies in leading in an authentic manner, recruiting a set of employees who are diverse in their interests and viewpoints and who are encouraged to develop their own unique skills and perspectives.
Learning while doing
If the lesson from sports is that periods of intense activity have to be followed by rest, recovery and reflection, how can you achieve similar gains in business? How can managers review their own performance and keep learning — while they still deliver?
Harvard Professor of Education Bill Torbert recommends “action inquiry,” a process of awareness and reflection that can really help. It’s related to the idea introduced earlier about not separating your long-term outcomes from your immediate goals.
So, although it may not be possible to put in as much dedicated practice time as elite athletes, you can develop the skills they’ll use to reflect on performance and get it better for next time. With practice, you can apply this reflective awareness almost in real time, so there’s the possibility of learning and changing your behavior “in the moment.”
Put simply, action inquiry involves asking yourself three questions about your behavior:
Can Olympic success inspire business?
Businesses can’t necessarily re-create the same conditions as in Olympic sport, but there are things that can be learned. Managers and leaders can hone their skills and learn faster by keeping an eye on the finish line, providing stability in the midst of chaos, and developing the awareness to reflect during the action.
Success doesn’t just happen; it’s planned
Without the required infrastructure, processes and personnel in place, even the most gifted athletes wouldn’t have a chance of making the podium.
A great product may get you so far, but without the required planning and investment behind the scenes — be it in people, new ways of working, back-end infrastructure, or new technology — there’s little chance of reaching No. 1, and even less hope of staying there.
The Olympics reminds us of some of the timeless ways in which we as business influencers can get the very best out of our people. Namely, to engage people by allowing them to be themselves and be part of a community, to be bold and to innovate, to use our best people and to protect our values at all costs.
Written by Brooks Williams, former Director of Organizational Development at MidSouth Bank.