Team GB Olympic success is driven by a secret most businesses have not learned

Atlanta, 1996. The entire British team, from athletics to swimming to cycling had taken home just one gold medal. 300 competitors, 184 men and 116 women over 175 events in 22 sports. And just one gold medal.

This 1996 team was full of heroes like Sally Gunnell, Denise Lewis, Tessa Sanderson, Liz McColgan, Chris Boardman, and Tim Henman (who went on to get a silver). Now, we could believe that these stars were not committed at Atlanta, or that they lacked the spirit needed to win. When we look at sports winners, we often presume that it is down to these types of factors. Hard work, grit, determination, spirit. Words reserved for winners.

“It’s all hard work and grafting… It’s been a long journey grafting and grafting, but anything is possible.” – Mo Farah

Team GB were far from winners despite the hard work and grafting, finishing 36th in the medals table behind Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan – it promoted a period of self-flagellation in the media and serious soul-searching among administrators.

London, 2012

29 gold medals.

What changed? Whilst some will point to the benefits of home advantage and there is no doubt that lottery funding has made a difference. Both of these could have easily been wasted. What really drove Team GB performance to new heights was a change in attitude.

Peter Keen, responsible for making Team GB the world’s top cycling nation said  “people generally avoid taking big risks to win. They would rather settle for the average, to avoid failure”.

UK Sport was committed to a principle of no compromise. As part of that no compromise Team GB chose to invest more in sports where they had a higher chance of winning a gold medal, and starve funding where that was not the case.

Prioritisation is the big secret of Team GB at the Olympics

They moved away from the idea of spreading funds in the same way companies spread funds across ideas, projects and departments and moved towards targeting success. As a result, they got above average performance. To me, the constant failure to really prioritise in companies, continues to hold back their performance. They chase projects without value, fail to kill investments that have not performed, share money around departments to try and be fair, and aim for average performance rather than take the necessary risks.

Lottery funding which started in 1994 was suddenly aimed at the World Class Performance Programme. Allowing athletes who had a chance of Gold to devote themselves to their training, paying their living costs and delivering a range of support services. Cruelly, those who did not match the required standards, had their funding cut.

In our session Prioritisation (Buy yourself a copy – it may be the best £35 you spend), we examine the choices that have to be made about which project, feature or requirement we will focus on first, or whether to do them at all. It is almost without exception that large companies look more like the Atlanta team of 1996 rather than the team that has dominated the London Olympics. That includes most of the organisations that use the label Agile, which often prioritise down at a requirement level, whilst the real prioritisation decision was still made using the poor processes above. Don’t be fooled by the overuse of the word prioritisation in companies, most companies are poor at prioritisation.

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