Faster, higher, stronger (or better sales performance, at least!)

Many articles compare business to sport. We've even published some ourselves.Typically they'll describe how the success of a great team or individual – Manchester United or Tiger Woods, say – provides clues to organisational performance.

The Olympics loom: one of the greatest, most complex organisational achievements of the human race. People are selected from all over the world; they come together in one place; some compete, some co-operate. Hundreds of brands are at stake – from the Olympics themselves, to the countries that athletes represent. The result is a fully fledged, four year market that generates billions in revenue. Put this way, the Olympics is a huge multinational corporation and can teach us more than an example like Tiger Woods putting on the 18th green for a million dollars.

So what can it tell us about people issues at work?

Recruit in haste, repent at leisure Choosing Olympic competitors can take years. Just because someone gets the 100 metre qualifying time three years before the event doesn't mean they're selected. Selectors wait to see how individuals mature over a season or longer, and who peaks when. Running one race is not the same as running four or five races in two or three days. You rarely see the major nations selecting someone who's ‘good enough'; they take their time to choose the best. This is not an argument for taking years to select people, but it does suggest you should take some ‘time out' before you plump for the first person who meets your criteria. Which brings us to...

Know what good looks like (and better and best)

This is easier in some sports than others. If Sergei throws the javelin further than anyone else he gets the gold. Simple.Some Olympic events are straight ability tests: they're designed to show competitors performing at their maximum level and there's an absolute measure of success or failure - but even here there are subtleties. Maybe Tamara can putt the shot better than Cindy on good days, but can she do it consistently through heats, semi-finals and finals?

These events are like sales performance. You know who your star sales people are - the figures rarely lie - but you have to decide where they fit in the sales cycle and what types of deal suit their style best. Other events are more difficult. You can disagree over who is the best ice dancer. It takes careful thought to decide how you measure performance in, say, R & D or Marketing, but you can't ignore the issue. It affects how you recruit, how you reward and motivate, and how you hold your annual performance management interview.

Tests and assessments are objective measurement tools, like a stop watch, a freeze frame camera or an electronic tape measure. Before you touch an assessment – whether you're using it for recruitment or development - you have to decide what you're looking for...and what improvement, talent and excellence mean in concrete terms. If success in an event – ice dancing or copywriting – isn't a simple matter of measures, develop hard criteria and train up people to apply them. The backroom boys and girls The Olympics is about stars. It's also about the people who organise the event – the backroom folks you never hear about. Sport may be about inspiration, dedication and the performance that takes place over a short time in a particular place; but it's also about the people who work for years in the background.

There are two lessons here:

  • Don't spend all your time on the stars and let the backroom people get disengaged because...
  • Process and systems may not be exciting but you need them to ensure good performance from your talent.

This is true of production, recruitment,development or a 360 operation. Time spent planning before you start the process is crucial. Different strokes for different folks The Olympics dramatise the importance of individual difference better than any other event. It involves carpenters and sailors; theatre directors and marketers; small bore rifle experts and, probably, some small but efficient bores! They speak several hundred different languages. They have completely different skills and experiences. They come together and create something unique that stops the whole world for weeks. It's sometimes difficult to understand why people go on about ‘diversity'. Here's the proof. Having different people and valuing that difference enables you to do the near impossible.

Rewards and competition

Some people compete for their countries, some for themselves. Others just want to be there. Some want to win, others want to do a personal best, some are overjoyed to be chosen to compete at all. People's motives are different. How they like to be rewarded will differ depending on their personalities, their skills and their jobs. Some people want a big bonus; others want a pat on the back. Management is a lot about understanding and acting on these differences.

I'm sure there's more to learn from the Olympics. In PR terms they haven't always got it right and they've had their fair share of disasters; but, ultimately, they are about people – exceptional ones and ordinary folk like you and me – combining in a common goal. That sounds familiar.

Enjoy the games.

Ian Florance is Managing Director of OnlyConnect, secretary of the Business Test Publishers Association and The European Test Publishers Group and a visiting tutor at the University of the Arts, London. He consults with Test Partnership on testing issues and is a print and web journalist, business planner and is publishing a new book of poetry later this year.