Friday, 17 August 2012

Olympic Life Lesson

So, the Olympics is over and a country that is roughly the size of Michigan seem to have come in third in the medal table.  Population of, what is it, sixty two million in the UK versus the largest nation in the world by population, China, second, and the US.  Not bad at all, to put it mildly. 

And is there anything we can learn from this?  Well, yes I think there is.  And it’s a kind of important lesson.  There may be many, but one in particular that I’m very struck by, because if we look at what happened four years ago in Beijing, British cyclists produced a pretty impressive performance then.  And it was said at the time there were reasons why, and Dave Brailsford actually talked about what he did that was different.  Nobody paid the slightest attention as far as I could see.  And lo and behold, when you get down to what made the difference, what he was doing was recognising that everything that addressed performance, even if it didn’t have a dramatic input, could have a cumulatively powerful impact.  What we’re talking about here is the power of incremental change.  So that could take many forms, you do a slightly different thing and you get a fraction of a hundredth of a second off total time.  Build those up over time, enough fractions of a hundredths of a second, you get improved performance. 

So does that mean it’s all about what happens on the track?  No it doesn’t.  Does that mean that it’s all about what you do in the moment when you’re confronting any kind of challenge in your life?  No it doesn’t. 

Here are a couple of the things that go with that kind of incremental mind set.  You pay attention to detail, you make very slight changes.  For instance all of the British cyclists have had hand washing lessons.  Why?  Because knowing how to wash your hands properly, is one of the best forms of preventative medicine that any human being can employ.  And that means that you get sick less often, which means you’re going to lose fewer days in terms of being ill.  And thus training can continue and you’ll be at a higher peak of performance.  Well how about this, whenever they travel, they take their own pillows.  Why?  Maybe it’s a comfort thing, no, well maybe it is.  But what else does it do?  It ensures that they have a comfortable pillow to rest their head on at night, so that they sleep better.  Little things. 

For years I’ve been saying to people never, never underestimate the power of incremental change.  And this is exactly the kind of thing that incremental change is about.  It’s not very dramatic, it’s not very impressive, no particular incremental change in itself is.  But the overall result for an individual and even more the overall result for a team is absolutely phenomenal, because it is cumulative it compounds over time.  

So I guess one of the things we could say is if we were looking for life lessons from the Olympics, well where might incremental change play a part in each of our lives?  Where might we be able to move in the direction we seek even if we can’t get there tomorrow?  Every slight change that takes us in that direction is moving us and creating momentum.  That’s the power of incremental change.  It’s also frequently part of what is true innovation.  Because innovation doesn’t just involve a brainstorming moment where there’s the eureka understanding of what is needed.  A lot of innovation comes about just by people making very slight changes which cumulatively result in something remarkably different. 

So what a great couple of weeks for people who have no interest in sport, because to me, whether you have an interest in sport or not, the Olympics are about, they’re a celebration of excellence.  Excellence in many different themes, with remarkable stories of people who demonstrate that if you really continue to persevere, if you really are willing to do what it takes, remarkable results can be achieved. 

That has to be a life lesson.  And a joyous one even.  For everybody.

‘Till the next time.  
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