The Olympics post

Olympics 2012 Womens Lightweight Double Sculls

One of my favourite Olympics images

I know there are lots of bloggers writing about the Olympics and how it relates to creating great workplaces.  So it seems a bit cliched to write about such stuff.  However, this is my blog and my reflections on what’s important to me.  I’ll remember London 2012 for the rest of my life.  In the future I want to look back on my posts from this summer and see a mention of the Olympics.  Here’s a few things I’ve been thinking about as I drive to and fro across East Yorkshire each day.

1. Cheering each other on is so powerful

It started with the torch.  Who would have thought that people could create such powerful and memorable experiences for each other by simply cheering on a person who is running with a torch?  And then in the events themselves – we have created amazing environments for the athletes, simply by cheering them on.  Loudly.

In the workplace – sometimes this happens, but often it doesn’t.  You know the whole silos and slabs problem.  I’ve certainly seen times where a person from one part of a business presents an update and the people who aren’t in that department stand there, uninterested, unsupportive.  I’ve been reflecting that it is so important to design events (e.g. for communications, learning or awards), in such a way that people feel encouraged to cheer each other on.

2. The symbols of culture are important

Wise old Edgar Schein defined culture as consisting of three levels:

  • artefacts and behaviours (real, physical things and what people do)
  • espoused values
  • underlying assumptions.

It is the assumptions that have the most powerful effect on the success or stagnation of the company.  E.g. imagine you work in an organisation where people are hesitant to make decisions. They tend to ask their superiors for permission. Which makes the company slow to act. But you won’t see ‘averse to decision making’, ‘hierarchical’ written on their website or list of values.  

Anyway, what’s struck me about the Olympics is the role of the artefacts part of Schein’s UK FLAGmodel.  The Union Jack flag; the olympic rings; the Team GB name; songs such as our anthem, Chariots of Fire, Heroes; the athletes strip.  All these things are artefacts.  But they act as symbols of the deeper values.  And it is the same within organisations – using symbols deliberately to reflect deeper values is a really useful thing to do.

3. This is for everyone

(I loved that bit of the opening ceremony).

In the last couple of weeks, every visitor I’ve met at work has commented on the culture of our company.  We’ve had an inter-department competition for the best Olympic themed office.  Flags, masking tape running tracks, bean bag shot put competitions abound.  And each time a Team GB medal is won, a short burst of Gold plays and a sweepstake winner is announced.  It’s all just fun, but it brings us together. From my point of view, I’ve worked as hard as ever – and I’ve felt really happy.  Yesterday two visitors who came for a meeting  with me said “Wow, I wish we’d done this. You must be a really values-driven company“.

The challenge is to keep going, keep on building culture and performance.  It’s a good challenge.

13 thoughts on “The Olympics post

    • Thanks Meg. I’m very aware of the comments of ‘oh god not another business blogger writing about the Olympics’ comments on Twitter. But if I don’t write for me first, there’s no point in blogging. So I do very much appreciate that you have taken the time to comment.

  1. I know I always seem to play the contrarian, but the cheering on of home athletes is a good example of confirmation bias. There are plenty of examples of home athletes that couldn’t handle the expectation (how many PBs were there in the pool?). I know the point you are making is subtler than that, but it’s worth remembering how much money was spent supporting them (is that R&D?).
    BTW, if you’re going to model your events after the olympics, does that mean the closing ceremony is going to be 2 hours too long with too much spice girls and not enough Pele?

      • I’m not always playing, sometimes I believe what I say.
        I read something a while ago that showed that host nations over perform in their olympics, but underperform at the following one. Obviously in a business context the “home crowd” won’t go away, but the underperformance rather than returning to the previous level is interesting. It could be down to many things (loss of funding or the big stars hanging on for a last big hurrah), but it does make me wonder about sustainability. When we start down a path, everybody has the best intentions and we make great strides, but gradually day to day problems (like profitability) mean we lose focus and are dragged backwards. Google is a good example of this.

      • Yes I totally agree about losing focus and the problems of sustaining high performance. One of my first blog posts was about taking a long term view, and I do think that is what is needed. For example, I listened to an interview with the Ikea’s ex CEO, and he said that developing a successful culture within a company was an 18 year project.

      • Interesting points (as always). What’s the equivalent of “home advantage” in a business or project context? Perhaps holding the gold card (if not medal) for one thing (i.e. my priority over yours), total command of available resources, application of heroic as opposed to sustainable effort, etc. There are some ‘hard’ investments in Team GB’s triumph that are less obvious than media-stoked hurrahing might have us believe. I hope someone looks under the hood at what was really driving the motor after the euphoria has finally evaporated. Because that is what we really need to do if we want to build a durable legacy, in whatever field of endeavour we toil in.

  2. You really made me wish that I was working for a company during the Olympics – I would have enjoyed the fun to be had!

  3. I generally hate being herded but I make exceptions.

    Sometimes a cultural event happens that is inspiring, and if we can’t draw from it then we’ve lost our humanity, pass me a nylon shirt, a nose bag of empty calories and let’s resort to sneering joylessness. No thanks 🙂

    I can skip the manufactured zeitgeist and canned emotion of X-Factor, Strictly and even most of the conveyor belt of commercial sports, especially the seemingly endless premier league.

    I manage to over ride my instinct against being herded on rare occasions but it’s worth it now and again, for The Ashes, The London Marathon, War Horse, Tim Berners Lee, The Olympics. I could go on, but you get the point. Some things are real.

    I will take the pleasure, the passion and the purpose I have enjoyed these last two weeks into my daily life. It’ll wear off, but I hope not too quickly. I should get Mo as my wall paper. 

    Meantime, I have run every day but one on holiday, tomorrow I have a day off, because I have a mountain to climb. No prizes for guessing what inspired me.

    Good post Flora 🙂

    Anthony

  4. Hi Flora, wonderful blog on the Olympics (I’m still inspired by it..) and like the way you’ve articulated the importance of culture and the related symbols. Also looking forward to the Paralympics which should go a long way towards overcoming the point on assumptions.

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