Lessons from Rio for digital leaders

Posted by Tim Parfitt
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Winning 27 gold medals at Rio and finishing second in the medal table saw Team GB claim its most successful Olympics for over 100 years. But what, if anything, can digital leaders learn from this achievement?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         I've analysed the structure, evolution, and performance of Team GB to identify the following seven-step strategy for digital success.


The Barcelona Olympics in 1992 saw Team GB finish 13th in the medal table with five golds. Overall, a so-so performance from a G8 Nation, and typical of Team GB's performance over the previous 70 years. To find a Games when Team GB's gold medal haul reached double-digits we have to go right back to the Antwerp Olympics of 1920. From that point on, other countries raised their game, invested in sport and were able to bask in the sense of national pride that comes from seeing your athletes on the podium. Sadly Great Britain did not follow suit.

The domestic and international benefits of winning medals are hard to quantify from an economic standpoint, but there is no doubt that it is better to win medals than not. The total economic impact of London 2012 is expected to be between £28 – £48 billion gross value added to the UK economy by 2020. After decades of repeatedly average medal hauls, the vision was clear: Team GB had to “go for gold”.

Lessons for digital leaders: Being an average player in your marketplace is not an option. If your competitors are hungrier for success and have a clearer vision and plan than you do, then you can expect to fall behind. Understand your marketplace, define your vision, and set out a plan to realise it.


John Major applauds GB success

The goal of "go for gold" is clear and easily understood. But realising a vision is no easy matter. No one doubts that over the 80 years from Antwerp in 1920 to Sydney 2000, Team GB athletes put in the best performance that they were capable of. But gold medals proved highly elusive. The answer was to raise the maximum capability of the athletes - to increase their potential. Achieving this required a total restructure of the organisation, funding and management of sport in the UK. And that transformation needed support at the very highest level. It was the UK Government of John Major that agreed to fund sport through the newly-formed National Lottery in 1994. Team GB had achieved stakeholder buy-in to support its vision.

Lessons for digital leaders: Realising your vision will take you on a long journey. To reach the end you will need stakeholder buy-in. If your vision is digital transformation then you need support and backing at the highest level within your company, namely the board of directors. Once they understand your vision and its associated benefits, then obstacles and hurdles are more easily overcome.


In most walks of life, under-investment is a common factor in under-achievement and this includes sporting performance at Olympic Games. Before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 (when Team GB won just one gold medal), investment from UK Sport stood at under £5m per year. Some sports, such as gymnastics, received no funding. Yet with ongoing, predictable funding from The National Lottery starting in 1994, investment in sport rose to £54m by Sydney 2000, to over £250m by London 2012. By Rio 2016 it exceeded £350m. This investment is at all levels, from grassroots sports to elite competitors, and reinforces the structure put in place to identify, encourage and support future generations of top performance athletes.

Lessons for digital leaders: Your vision to transform your company into a world leader will quickly come unstuck if budgets are insufficient or funding is unpredictable. You need to be confident in programme budgeting and allow sufficient contingency for the 'unknown unknowns'. Even if the board and stakeholders support funding requests at the outset, this will soon diminish should you have to return 'cap in hand' too many times without evidence of progress, results and success. To avoid disappointment map out anticipated investment and associated returns at each major stage of your digital transformation journey.


With the commencement of sports funding from The National Lottery in 1994, there could have been an expectation for immediate results two years later in Atlanta. However, these Games yielded just one gold medal, the lowest total for over 40 years, with Team GB finishing 36th in the medal table. Two years is insufficient time to restructure a country's sports management, identify talent, train coaches, put sports support teams in place and train to world-class standards. Good expectation management resulted in continued funding and continued implementation of the plan to realise the vision. Evidence of success came at Sydney 2000 when Team GB won 11 gold medals, making it the most successful Games since 1920.

Graph of Team GB medal wins

Lessons for digital leaders: Don't promise too much too soon and do not over-promise. Keep stakeholders informed of progress with regular, honest and transparent updates. Set expectations from the outset, explaining that there will be setbacks and unforeseen challenges along the way, as well as successes and pleasant surprises. Establish a process to ensure that project sponsors relay consistent messaging so that expectations aren’t raised second-hand. While busy implementing the plan, take the time to remind yourself and your team of the vision and the progress you are making towards realising it.


Olympic athletes are normally identified at an early age, then nurtured and supported as they develop into world-class athletes. This requires world-class support from coaches, performance analysts, dietitians, sports therapists and cognitive therapists, as well as provision of cutting-edge sports equipment, aerodynamics and performance clothing. Developing and assembling the most appropriate support team for each athlete takes both an investment of time and finance. But get it right and a six-year-old with a natural aptitude for swimming can develop over time to become a world-record breaking athlete wearing a gold medal around their neck.

Lessons for digital leaders: Your vision will quickly unravel if you don’t assemble a team capable of delivering success. Just as an athlete relies on a team of experts, so the success of your internal team will depend on the skilled suppliers and partners brought in to enhance your in-house resources. Together, all parties must work in unison to achieve your vision. This is more easily achieved when everyone is emotionally committed to the project, striving for professional success rather than mere financial gain. People will go to great lengths to achieve success when they are emotionally involved. But you must be prepared to take quick and decisive action to adjust the team structure if some team members are not performing to the level expected.


Beijing 2008 built on the success of Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004 to deliver 19 gold medals. But with a field full of similarly capable athletes from competing nations, Team GB had to scrutinise the details to identify areas where competitive advantages could be gained for its athletes. The perfect example of this is in British cycling where Sir Dave Brailsford introduced the philosophy of 'marginal gains' to eke out small advantages. One tiny advantage alone might not be enough to turn a silver-medal hopeful into a gold-winning performance, but find enough small advantages and you stand a fighting chance of winning gold. And so Team GB analysed, monitored and identified area-upon-area where marginal gains could be achieved - from the equipment used, the food consumed, the bedding slept on, and the seams stitched into clothing. The results pay testament to this meticulous approach.

Lessons for digital leaders: While keeping your eye on your vision, don't ignore the details. To be a world-leading company your team must continuously analyse everything, from the minutiae of internal procedures to external macro conditions. Identify marginal gains, conduct a cost/benefit analysis, and implement the gains that can be justified. Then start over and analyse everything again, and again. Think of any world-class company or product and you can be certain they aren’t satisfied with being good; they strive to be number one.


The momentum from Sydney 2000, Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 led to London 2012, Team GB's most successful Olympics in over one hundred years. In the history of the Olympics, a home nation had never before bettered its performance at the following Games. So the success of Team GB at Rio 2016, finishing second in the medal table, is a truly remarkable performance. And what is also remarkable is the realisation of the vision set 22 years earlier in 1994. The vision was clear, "go for gold". The funding was sufficient and predictable. Structures and teams were put in place. Things that were broken were fixed. Close attention was paid to detail. And results flowed in. As the focus turns to Tokyo 2020, Team GB continues to improve their winning system, and they need to; because other countries are watching closely, learning and improving in order to replicate this success for their own athletes.

Lessons for digital leaders: Celebrate success. But not for long - don't rest on your laurels. Your competitors are ambitious and will replicate the best of what you do to achieve their own success. Your customers are fickle with little loyalty when a superior product or service is only a few clicks or swipes away. So reset your vision, leverage your advantages, and build on your momentum to achieve future success for your company.

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