Date: Thu 23 Aug 2012

Performance Highs and High Performance


Sport, like art, is useless. Neither serves any purpose. Yet the UK has just spent about £11bn on staging the Olympic Games, about the same amount as the annual budget of the Home Office, whilst public spending is being cut. The country is in a serious recession, and the Eurozone is facing a major crisis. Fiddling whilst Rome burns? The Government promises an economic return on that £11bn. Experts are sceptical. London retailers are already grumpy. I don’t care.

Human beings care more about useless things than they do about useful things, precisely because they are useless. Because they are not means to an end, they become an end in themselves. We care about art, not because it lets us do something else, but because we love beauty. And we care about sport because we are excited by competitions and admire human achievement. In fact we are inspired by the few of us who strive quite unreasonably to improve their already extraordinary ability to carry out some pointless activity like cycling round a track, jumping over a pole or running 100 metres.

Usain Bolt does not do that because he wants to get better at catching buses. It is about the game for the game’s sake. The tangible reward is a medal. No doubt Bolt and a few other superstars will also become rich. Many other medal winners will not. But I doubt very much that Bolt spent thousands of hours in pain on a deserted track outside Kingston because he wanted to make lots of money. He did it because he wanted to become a legend. The big reward is intangible, expressed in that old word we don’t use any more - ‘honour’. History suggests that the most powerful human motivator of all, leading to the greatest human achievements and the sacrifices they all entail, is earning the recognition of others. It is as old as human civilisation.

It lay at the heart of the Team GB performance, the roots of which lie in the opposite of honour: humiliation. In the Atlanta Games of 1996 the 303 British athletes came 36th, with fifteen medals, just one of them gold. In London in 2012, the 541-strong Team GB came 3rd with sixty five medals, twenty nine of them gold. As so often in organisational history it is confrontation with failure which sets people on the path to high performance.

The path began with the gathering of resources. The team that went to the games in 2000 determined not to repeat the humiliation of Atlanta were backed by £60m from the Government and also from the National Lottery. They won 11 gold medals. In 2012 Team GB’s funding had risen to £264m.

The path was charted by giving responsibility for raising Britain’s Olympic performance to specific groups of people and creating organisational structures with the power to let them do so. The money was given to an institution called UK Sport which allocated it between different sports and different uses. In 1997, UK Sport created a World Class Performance Programme to identify and develop sporting talent. Since 2002, it has funded the English Institute of Sport which supports athletes with science and technology. At Olympic levels the difference between gold and silver is tiny, measured in 100ths of a second, or millimetres. Winning is usually an accumulation of individual improvements barely discernible to the layman. Athletes need the help of biometrics, performance analysis, conditioning, therapy and medicine. Every detail counts. Every little helps. The cyclists have worked with wind tunnels, analysed the effects of the atmosphere, clothing materials, the construction of helmets and so on. The professional approach of these amateurs is characterised by opening up to the outside and seeking support from anywhere and everywhere.

Performance was built up through relentless focus on the basics, plus a test and learn approach to improvement. They had to be prepared to take risks and experiment. They had to both learn from failure and never be satisfied with success.
Individual athletes have had to come back from setbacks of all kinds. During the Beijing Olympics, Jessica Ennis languished in Sheffield nursing a stress fracture in her right foot, and Mo Farah failed to reach the 5,000 m final. The experience was not confined to members of Team GB. In 2011, Bolt was disqualified from the World Championships in Korea because of a false start.

There is a pattern here which often recurs with high performance organisations. They suffer a shock, even a near-death experience. They decide not to die, but to invest. They re-invent themselves by going back to fundamentals and focussing on getting the basics right. They look outside themselves and adopt anything which might be useful. They try things out, keep some things, reject others, test and learn. They are relentless. They usually identify and develop some outstanding individuals, but their performance does not depend on them. It is the team that counts. Individuals strengthen the team and themselves get strength from it. This was the story of the Roman army after the disaster of Cannae, the Royal Navy after the humiliation of the Dutch raid on the Medway, the Prussian army after the catastrophe of Jena.

LOCOG ran a highly successful project. It was not of course born out of a disaster, but and there were plenty of Cassandra voices predicting one, and right up to the last minute it had plenty of obstacles to overcome. In the way it handled them it also demonstrated high performance characteristics: focus on what matters, a test and learn approach, addressing and overcoming problems using the power of individual initiative. The testing and learning was thorough. From May 2011 to May 2012 they conducted 42 rehearsals, covering every aspect of the event.

The difference between the Olympic achievement and that of a high performance organisation, is that the performance of LOCOG and the performance of the athletes were designed to peak at a single moment. The flowers at the Olympic Park had to bloom during the games; every athlete had to reach peak form at the time of their event. They were aiming for a performance high. Most organisations are aiming for high performance. There is no let up for them.

Nevertheless, the Olympics do offer lessons for all organisations. To me the most enduring one is the reminder that people do not give their all for money. We all know that, but we are apt to forget. During my own evening at the stadium, I was really struck by the volunteers. They all knew what to do, they were helpful and enthusiastic, and they did not just make things work, but contributed significantly to the quality of the experience itself. These people who gave of their time and effort for free were not just a few sports fanatics. The 70,000 volunteers were selected from among 240,000 applicants. That says something about us. The rewards that drive the highest levels of human achievement are the intangible ones.