A recipe for success?

Svein S Andersen

Is there a recipe for winning medals? Here are five lessons from the world of elite sports that may yield better business performance.

LEADER’S TOOLBOX: Performance Leadership

Norway’s results in the 2018 Winter Olympics have attracted attention. Is there a recipe for winning medals? If so, can it also be applied in the business world?

Elite sports is special. Athletes and coaches pursue very ambitious goals. Only a select few can become Olympic champions. A significant part of this effort revolves around leading and organising systematic development through small steps that, over time, may yield exceptional results. Here, elite sport world possesses unique expertise.

Crises or dramatic changes requires other strategic tools. However, once storms have weathered and new frameworks are in place, the methodology for systematic improvements in elite sport could be very useful also in the business world.

Can elite sports methodologies be condensed into concrete, practical advice that can also benefit others?

Professor of economics Harold Pollack claimed that the best financial advice for most people was simple enough to fit on an index card. Examples: Save 20 per cent of your income. Pay off your credit cards every month. The challenge lies in following this advice.

In the business world the problem is often that the result is equated with performance. In sports, in contrast, the clear message is that performance is the process that creates the result. With this perspective in mind, I would like to highlight five pieces of advice that can strengthen performance management.

1. Focus on continuous development

A key factor behind Norwegian Olympic success is that elite sport systematically exploit lessons learned across all types of sports, in a so-called cluster organisation. The national elite sport organization, Olympiatoppen, serves as the hub in a learning network. While the daily development takes place in the individual sports, this network reinforces a performance mind-set and promotes knowledge about systematic improvement.

In other words, Norwegian elite sport practice Porter’s cluster theory, but with a core organization that reinforces the potential for reliable learning in such settings. Industry organisations can benefit from taking a closer look at this type of development work.

2. Build relationships governed by objectives

Understanding objectives, and their consequences for everyone involved, requires involvement. In elite sport overall objectives dictate development goals at every level. There must be a clear and concise relationship between performance goals for the team and the individual’s training and development goals.

The training goals must be concrete, and progress must be measurable. The objective is to build increased capacity that enhances the chance of achieving results. Clarifying responsibility, roles and rules for interaction is often a good start.

3. Strengthen elements that promote performance

Business leaders have a tendency to focus too much on the final result. New technology, new demands from customers and clients, as well as new colleagues, stimulate day-to-day learning. What makes elite sport stand out is the ability to systematically identify and prioritise elements in processes that can make the greatest contribution towards continuous improvements.

Even when aiming for the same results, development goals can vary between departments, teams and individuals. Prioritisation also encompasses the understanding that time and efforts are needed to develop new skills. It all comes down to concentrating on just one or a few things at a time. To prioritise also imply that one has to do less somewhere else, or disregard it entirely.

4. Make development work part of the daily routine

This might all seem easier in the world of sports. Athletes have time to train, and they compete from time to time. In the business world, competition is constant. Such differences are real, but the comprehension of training leaves something to be desired.

Elite sports do not draw a clear line between training and competition. Training demands concentration and commitment, just like competitions. Competition is about succeeding in what one practices when training.
In a company, training should focus on strengthening elements in the work one performs. Greater attention and concentration enhances quality and the ability to deliver.

5. Introduce systematic development in a proactive and comprehensive management model

A core ambition for a leader must be to develop oneself so as to develop others. Development occurs under “your” leadership. Ambitions and goals for the enterprise must challenge some elements of the status quo. Training work must measure up to the best the industry can offer.

The training work must be made very concrete and linked to one’s daily “chief occupation”. The development work – and contributions to enhance results – must be regularly evaluated and adjusted as necessary.

In the business world, results are often viewed as synonymous with performance. In elite sports, however, the message is clear – it is the process that creates the result that is the actual performance or achievement. That is the key to achieving extraordinary results. The challenge lies in doing it.

The article has been published as a guest commentary in the periodical “Kapital”, No. 24, April 2018 under the headline “How business can learn from sports”.

Text: Professor Svein S. Andersen, Department of leadership and organizational behaviour at BI Norwegian Business School.

Published 11. May 2018

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