Olympic Lessons

olympic lessons

The London Olympic Games were a triumph. But what business lessons could we learn? Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove suggest some starters.

First, if you want to clinch a deal you must figure out who the audience is, what they are looking for and then promise the world. London should not have won the bid to host the 2012 Games. It lagged behind all the way. But come the vote in Singapore, it gave the International Olympic Committee exactly what it wanted. There was an emphasis on creating a legacy and getting people involved with sport. This was music to the IOC’s ears. And the London team was high profile — including Tony Blair and David Beckham — and enthusiastic.  In short, London understood what the customer wanted and said they could and would deliver.  The detail of delivery — and the huge amounts of extra money actually required — could wait until the deal was done.

The second clear message is that people rally around a cause.  We were in the Thames-side town of Henley when the Olympic torch paid a visit as it journeyed throughout the UK. Over 20,000 people watched as famous Olympians and ordinary citizens carried the torch through the town.  And that was it. People carried a torch through the town and the inhabitants stood and applauded with huge enthusiasm. The unifying power of the torch and what it stands for quickly became powerfully apparent.  The lesson? For leaders the challenge must be to create powerful rallying symbols and events in their own organizations.

The third lesson is the perils of outsourcing core activities and then failing to monitor them.  The security firm G4S failed to honor its contract to provide security personnel and was widely pilloried.  Soldiers were drafted in to fill the breach.  The mystery  is why the UK government didn’t use the army in the first place.  Their  presence was reassuring for most spectators and gave them welcome respite from their other duties. The message for organizations is to identify what is core and to take control of it and retain that control even if outsourced.

Four, in the modern age organizations have to accept that certain things are out of their control.  LOCOG’s overly enthusiastic inerpretation of branding guidelines meant that a butcher with a display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings was deemed to have infringed the rules.  The media have trumpeted the ludicrousness of this with enthusiasm.  The lesson is that the best organizations have a sense of proportion and realise that turning a cannon on a mouse is a poor use of resources.

Five, communication is writ especially large for leaders of the Olympics. Every word matters.  The danger is that negative media coverage sucks leaders i nto defensiveness.  The three Ps of communication are to be positive, proactive and passionate.  No one demonstrated this better than the Mayor  of London, Boris Johnson. The Old Etonian cuts a charismatic and eccentric figure. He is as likely to quote Virgil as policy.  But, throughout the lengthy process his communication has been resolutely positive, passionate and proactive. The dangers of being defensive were made clear when Sebastian Coe was forced to say that people wearing a Pepsi t-shirt were unlikely to be allowed in to the stadia. His statement was slightly vague and definitely defensive, yet the issue could easily have been anticipated.

Six, the ticketing and the pricing of the games was hugely controversial. Clearly it is a hugely complex exercise — see the recent HBR article by Marco Bertini on the perils of modern pricing. Where the mild British bridled was at the apparent lack of fair process. Any such process must be manifestly fair and transparent. Otherwise, sniping and criticism is inevitable. The common perception of the ticketing process was that it was unduly complex and unfair. Apply this in a corporate setting and business leaders should consider whether their pricing and, indeed, their pay structures are fair and transparent. If not, they can become a breeding ground for discontent.

Finally, the games demonstrate that major infrastructure projects require partnerships between the public and private sectors. In China four years ago the Chinese authorities steamrolled and bankrolled the games in spectacular fashion but partnerships were never on their agenda. London achieved impressive infrastructure results with less money and with public and private sectors working together. Partnership delivers.

Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove are The founders of the Thinkers50. They are Adjunct Professors at Madrid’s IE Business School.

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