Peter Mukerjea: 2012 Olympic Games – The philosophy of marginal gains!

17 Aug,2012

By Peter Mukerjea


So now that the 2012 Olympic Games are over, I felt a sense of withdrawal for a day or so. I had got so used to watching hours of fabulous TV coverage across 24 channels – some in HD, of virtually all the events from different venues across the City ofLondonand further afield – sailing and rowing. I wasn’t one bit disappointed though, at not having been to the Games to see anything LIVE, only because the TV broadcast was of such a high standard, that making the effort to steer through the traffic to get there, shuffle with seating, break for snacks or lunch or tea or a pee break, that watching several events at the same time on TV was simply unbeatable, as an option.


But, I did start wondering what it is that the recent 2012 Olympics did for me, in context to India Inc. and what I learnt from the Games themselves. The Games were terrific, as an event of course, the opening ceremony, the athletes, the management, et al, but how did Team GB do so well and so much better than the Beijing Games, just 4 years ago. What was their secret and how did they go about it? I asked a few people who are in the know of these things and the answers I got were astounding, although not surprising. There was also some timely in-depth research done by the IES (Institute for Employment Studies ) which will give us some insight on this.


What stuck out for me was the “The concept of marginal gains”. This simple philosophy has made a big difference to the end result – the medal tally and put Team GB in 3rd place. This was a real surprise for me but not so when I probed a little to find out more.  Each sport had a performance director who had set a very clear goal for the team and at every stage of activity, the same question was asked – over and over again  – “is this going to make us better?”


Be it rowing, sailing, running, jumping, shooting, boxing, whatever. They set a goal and then went about deconstructing the goals to see what needed to be done and how could something new make a slight marginal difference to the performance – a marginal gain each time. Not to make gains in leaps and bounds, but to do this on a step by step basis. And then to collectively achieve a better result each time.


They would do multi-planner activity and had a meritocratic approach to everything – training, teamwork, funding, performance management, but they were also open to criticism. They were self critical at all times, got rid of flabbier organisations as compared to the earlier Games and better understood the concept of loss aversion. In other words, they applied a terrific amount of strategic thinking into each and every sport and took a very business performance management approach to everything. The support and funding that each sport got from Government was also based largely, if not entirely, on results achieved.


None of this is earth shattering in itself perhaps, but the revelation gets more interesting when we see the ‘how’ and ‘why’.


Based on interviews and focus groups with 154 team members, the research goes on to flag coaching and mentoring as key ingredients for a happy and successful team. It shows the team managers are not afraid of change and help create an atmosphere for innovation rather than wallowing in a blame culture. It also outlines 6 areas to avoid for anyone aspiring to engage their team.


1. Never hope it will go away.

2. Never have a bad day.

3. Don’t be part of the problem.

4. Don’t encourage discord and don’t play games to keep people on their toes or enhance competitiveness.

5. Don’t manage performance before people

6. Don’t hide, even if you are naturally shy and retiring.


Great team spirit doesn’t happen by chance. The best leaders ensure their behaviour sets the standards for their staff.  The man behindBritain’s cycling success, Dave Brailsford, insists that it’s the little things that make a difference. Hence the likes of Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton taking their own pillows to meets, so they sleep better and making sure they clean gaps between their fingers to reduce probability of illness.


Marginally obsessive perhaps, but dedication to success is infectious, particularly when it so clearly gets results. It’s certainly something for all managers to chew on in this post Olympic period.


(But apart from this , what was also most endearing to me , was the lack of commercial breaks during any of the TV broadcasts. By the way, how’s the IBF getting on with limiting the volume of minutes per hour, for commercial breaks? )


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