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How we won gold at the Olympics by Philip Hesketh


Well, back in 2007, Seb Coe and the Olympic Committee badly needed to raise money and the Government of the day badly needed to re-energise a rundown part of London, not to mention provide a 'feel good factor' boost to the nation. Their missions overlapped in their desire to see the Olympics succeed. The Government, the Mayor of London and The Games' organisers may have had different reasons for desiring success, but they at least had a common plan to achieve those disparate objectives. In short, they had a common goal but different motivations. It works if you know what the other person wants. A bit like business teams.

In the late 1990s, a group of researchers from two universities and the U.S. Naval Warfare Center recruited 112 young men and women and paired them randomly to see how well each partnership could fly a combat mission in an F-16 flight simulator. All the 'pilots' were given a full hands-on training session and I refuse to do the joke about the females driving the plane from the back seat. For each pair, one of the volunteers flew the plane, whilst the other gathered information, set airspeed, called up different weapons systems and painted their nails. Both could fire the weapons.

However, each pair received conflicting objectives that forced them to make difficult choices. They were told to survive enemy fire, fly a predetermined route, and shoot down enemy aircraft. This scoring scheme presented a strategic dilemma for teams, as the three objectives were incompatible. You just couldn't do it all. A bit like business teams.

Going into the test, the pairs displayed differing levels of 'shared mental model' of the challenge. Again, a bit like business teams. Each pair flew six missions and whilst their performances improved with practice, those who were more 'in sync' at the beginning continued to stay better focused throughout. What's more, it was discovered that partners who shared a similar view of the challenge did better than the others. The conclusion? Working together well requires a common view of the mission above and beyond simple shared task knowledge. And a common mission is the foundation for all partnerships - a bit like business teams.

Successful collaboration is more than friendship or 'get-on-ability'. It occurs only when you and an ally strive for a definitive accomplishment. And the relationship is unique. It exists only to serve the goal and lasts only until the mission is accomplished. Once the objective is reached, the partnership must adopt a new goal or it dissolves. Three statements from Gallup research proved to be best at assessing the degree to which both people in a partnership are pursuing the same objective:
1 We share a common goal.
2 We have a common purpose for what we do.
3 We believe in the same mission in life.

Often in business, people think they are on the same page. However, when limits of time, money, or attention force difficult choices, it becomes clear they have conflicting priorities. A successful partnership is one where both agree on the objective and bring something unique to its achievement. But although you and your collaborator must agree on your mission, you don't need to have the same reasons for pursuing it.

And that's why the Olympics has been such a resounding success. Getting back to central London on Sunday night from that magnificent stadium was about as easy as you could possibly imagine. That's because the crowd-management system planned to the last metre and minute worked magnificently well for the whole period. An extraordinary number of records were set in the Velodrome because the GB track cycling team was the best organised, best trained, best equipped and most competitive in our history. They were riding in the best Velodrome ever built. And it was all part of a huge mission.

The mission was agreed upon, the common goal understood, and the different motivations of the people appreciated.


I didn't pay £725 for 9.63 seconds. I paid that to be in a superb stadium and be inspired not just by the athletes but by everything that created such a fabulous games.

Sod it, I'm going to have another go at that dining table.