going for the gold

I’ve finally made it through all of the hours of Olympics coverage which I DVR’d because I had been unable to watch most of the Games live.  2010_winter_olympics_logosvgpnSince I already knew the result of many of the competitions, I was interested in watching mostly for the profiles of the athletes and stories behind and nuances of their achievements.  I gleaned a few insights that seem to have relevance for companies who are competing in the game of business.

from Shaun we learn the importance of safety nets

There was a lot of buzz about the secret half-pipe that Red Bull built for snowboarder Shaun White to train on.  But what seemed to have been overlooked in the story is the actual half-pipe structure itself.  In addition to the standard half-pipe, it included a foam pit (the first of its kind, apparently) which Shaun used to practice his amazing aerial tricks.

With mounds of foam as his safety net, Shaun tried out moves he had only previously imagined, saying, “The foam pit let me learn what the move in my head should feel like in the air.”  After nailing the stunts over the foam pit, Shaun then took them to the snow-covered steel half-pipe.  The half-pipe, the website explains, enabled Shaun to take “his tricks from concept to reality and the sport from today to tomorrow.

Companies need similar safety nets — venues where they can try out big moves without risking fallout from failure. The confidence you have when you know you have little to lose is truly empowering.

The good news is that safety nets are more easily created — and used — these days.  Whether it is customer panels, or virtual reality environments, or living labs, companies now have tools to develop their own safety nets.  And a more collaborative, inclusive mindset is permeating corporate cultures.

With willing collaborators and less resource-intensive contexts, companies can create their equivalent of a foam pit to cushion the landings of bold new ventures they set aloft – and in doing so, push the limits of innovation.  As Shaun’s website states, “When you’re at the top…that means pushing into unknown territory.

from Apolo we learn the wisdom of knowing when to hang back and when to seize the moment

Speedskater Apolo Anton Ohno has become famous for his ability to capture the winning slot at the most opportune moment of a race – and he demonstrated this unique skill once again at these Olympics.

In one particular contest, his move from last position to first was so fast, you might have missed it if you blinked – and yet it was so graceful, it looked effortless.  After the start of the race, he settled into the back of the pack — you could almost see him sizing up the competition and plotting his move.  While the others jostled for position, he skated patiently behind the others until the last few laps.

And then in one instant, when Apolo sensed the opportunity to move ahead, he glided into the lead position.  He then broke away from the pack as he skated the last lap and crossed the finish line as the winner.

The contest painted a picture of ultimate patience and agility.  Companies need to have both.

On the one hand, hanging back makes sense sometimes.  Instead of racing to be first to market, companies might sometimes be better served by spending the time to size up the opportunity and the competition.  A careful assessment and analysis of the situation might reveal a better tact – and by letting others go first, you let them work out all the kinks and deal with players who are likely to spark and flame out before the culmination of the competition.

On the other hand, business leaders must always be ready to make their move.  This requires keeping a vigilant eye on the market and competitors.  Companies should engage a team in continuous marketplace scanning – with today’s social communication tools, this kind of scanning has become easier and less costly.

It also means companies need to be nimble enough to move quickly when the time is right. Smaller companies can ensure this by implementing an organizational structure, adopting a culture of readiness, and establishing processes which enable their entire organization to change immediately as needed.  Larger companies probably need to designate SWAT team-style groups which are ready to deploy on a moment’s notice in order to seize emerging market opportunities.

The tactics of Apolo-style competition may be unusual, but so are the results.

from Lindsey we learn about dealing with pain

Just days before she was scheduled to compete, downhill and super-G skiing champion Lindsey Vonn injured herself during a training run.  Her bruised and swollen right shin put into question her ability to  participate in the Games.

When she revealed the injury to the press and public, she explained that at first she had been in denial:  “I pretty much stuck my fingers in my ear and just pretended like I didn’t hear what was going on. I didn’t want to hear that my shin was fractured.”  But then she realized she had to face reality, ultimately telling reporters:  “I’m sitting here today questioning whether…I’ll be even able to ski.”

She underwent a healing regimen and tried to keep focused on her goal.  Between that discipline and a weather delay which gave her extra time to rest, she made the decision to compete.  And despite being “very emotional and very scared” and experiencing “excruciating pain,” she ended winning the gold medal up in her first event!

The arc of Lindsey’s story is one that business leaders can learn from to overcome the crisis or serious setback that every company will inevitably face at one time or another.  While the natural tendency may be to ignore the problem or deny the severity of the situation, it’s best to face the facts as soon as possible.  Once you acknowledge the problem, you can move on to understand its consequences and determine a course of action.

As you take steps to repair the damage, it’s important to remain focused on your goals.  There’s a fine line to walk between addressing the problem and not getting distracted by it.  Maintaining clarity on ultimately what you’re trying to achieve and not wavering in your commitment to your goals will help.  The way you deal with the issue can be a step in the path to your goals, not simply an exercise a crisis management.  Rahm Emmanuel’s famous quip, “never let a serious crisis go to waste” definitely applies.

And you must move forward, despite how painful, scary, or emotional doing so may be.  Some organizations become paralyzed by problems.  But, Lindsey shows us that pain is a part of competition and is not a barrier to success.  Companies must be willing to feel the pain and do it anyway.

The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” — Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”  From these 3 athletes and their stories, we learn the nuances behind achieving these ideals.

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