The toughest of tests: what businesses can learn from Olympians

To really excel and beat the competition requires more than a spark of inspiration and talent. It requires focused effort. The sporting world has shown that, brought into sharp relief when you hear the personal stories of the medalists over the last two weeks of the Olympics.

Better practice = better performance

The coaching and training techniques have been refined and improved which is part of the reason that we are seeing World and Olympic records shattered. And whilst advanced and novel training techniques are not limited to sports, they do have one common theme; they all make the activity more difficult than it is at the time of competition. Let me give you a couple of examples:

Football; one of the reasons that Brazilian footballers are so good, is not natural talent or the poor economic conditions, but they all play futsal. It is played with a smaller, heavier ball and a smaller pitch. The maths tells a story. Futsal players touch the ball far more often than soccer players – six times more often per minute. The smaller, heavier ball demands and rewards more precise ball control. “No time plus no space equals better skills”.

Table tennis; multi-ball coaching techniques brought in by the Chinese. Simply put, multi-ball is the training technique that has coach use a number of balls to set up a training drill for the player who is doing the practicing. Most players think of multiball almost as a torture technique, where the trainee is reduced to a small puddle of sweat as the feeder keeps him constantly moving all over the table chasing the ball and gasping for breath. And while using multi-ball to build fitness is one aspect of the technique, there are several other benefits; technique, footwork, decision making and psychological strength.

Better business practice

In business we do not ‘practice’. Every day we go to work we are ‘in the game’, rarely with a coach, a game plan or any time to reflect on our performance.

But business is not a zero-sum game. to win in sport your opponent needs to lose. In business that is not the case. If an individual can raise their game it can be replicated to other team members. The collective performance gains can be huge. So why are proven techniques from sport not used in business?

As one business expert put it:

“Very few businesses have put the principles of ‘purposeful practice’ into the workplace. Sure, the hours may be long in some jobs, but the tasks are often repetitive and boring and fail to push employees to their creative limits beyond. There is little coaching and objective feedback is virtually non-existent, often compromising little more than a half-hearted annual review.”

BPM= Business Practice Management?

Some businesses are starting to take management of business activities seriously. It is being called Business Process Management (BPM). But it is pretty patchy across companies, with some exceptions. Companies like Nestlé take process very seriously and consequently are some of the most successful on the planet. But there is a critical role that clearly documented and managed businesses gives you; a basis for feedback.

Feedback is rocket fuel

In the words of a sports coach, “If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right”.

BPM allows companies to define a baseline against which improvements can be measured. Without a clear definition of process it is impossible to work out why something has gone wrong. There is too much “noise”. Quite often sports have feedback built in. Play a bad shot and and you are in a bunker or out of bounds. But business often has a longer feedback cycle so it is difficult or impossible to link action to result. BPM helps make the link clearer and removes the noise.

Raising the game

But there are other ways that businesses can make sure that they are at the top of their game. Whilst it might be easier to pick a market with weak competitors and forgiving customers, that does you no good in the longer term. You only have to look at the defence industry which got fat on Cost-Plus Government contracts. As those contracts dried up and they had to compete for commercial work they found they were hopelessly uncompetitive. Many simply went out of business taking their small suppliers down with them.

My alternative approach when I set up my previous company was to compete in the toughest market and the most demanding customers. That was the food and pharma market. Regulated by the FDA, these companies are tough to satisfy; they want to see proven results before the purchase, they drive hard price negotiation, and they conduct quarterly company audits. But once you have established yourself as a credible supplier, there is a huge barrier to entry for your competitors.

Pick the toughest markets

I’m in the early stages of a new venture. Likewise with we are looking to satisfy the most complex projects; large numbers of invited individuals, huge numbers of posts and photos, with complex sharing with multiple businesses and their sub-contractors and their sub-contractors.

“Pick the toughest and most complex market and everything else will be easy.”

So we could have picked one of the first projects to be organising a small village party. But no, we picked the most complex and nerve-wracking party of all. A wedding. But not a simple wedding in a church in England with a few friends. A wedding in Sydney, organized by the happy couple in London and the rest of the family between here and Australia.

What we’re doing is perfect for home improvement projects. Installing a new kitchen. A new conservatory. Updating a bathroom. But those projects are simple compared with the second project for we’re taking on, the new build of a large contemporary house. This will engage architects, surveyors, arborists, builders, interior designs, landscape designers… and the (expensive) list goes on.

More than medals at stake

So, we can’t wait to get the new company out into the market. We are being told by everyone we talk to about the concept that we are on to a winner. As an investor it fees like there is a lot more at stake than a medal.


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Categories: Process Management

Author:Ian Gotts

Founder of, tech advisor, investor, speaker and author. Runs on Duracell. Based in San Francisco and in a 747., is the business analysis app designed to support Salesforce #AwesomeAdmins. 100% cloud, it is tightly integrated into Salesforce. Use the free core capabilities to capture business processes and embed them inside objects, with single sign-on.

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