23/08/16, Peter Russian

An Olympic Ambition for Business

Strategy, skills, leadership, coaching

It may be August, the traditional season for ”silly stories” but last weekend’s Sunday Times front page managed to make an impressive link between the achievement of our Olympians and the UK Government’s plans for Brexit.

“Theresa May will harness the spirit of Britain’s Olympic “world beaters” to draw up a blueprint for Brexit” it trumpeted.

Sport has long been used as a metaphor and inspiration for what can be achieved by individuals and teams, and so there should be no surprise that the performance of the GB team will trigger a wealth of articles about what business and HR can learn from the Olympics.

But the Sunday Times article raises the stakes and suggests that the strategy for dealing with Brexit will be based on creating an economic environment in which excellence can thrive.  Some commentators seeking a firm sense of what the “plan” for Brexit looks like have dismissed this as being a wee bit trite, but applying reverse logic it’s difficult to make a case that economic prosperity can be achieved without a concerted and meaningful investment in skills and the environment which allows people and industry to flourish.

There are two immediate questions which arise from this proposition – firstly, is it really all about skills, and second, what role does Government have in this?

It’s easy to conclude that the lessons from the Olympics are all about developing and honing the skills of people working across the UK.  But the reality is that most Gold, Silver and Bronze medals were won by fractions of seconds.   We are not talking about the difference between Michael Phelps and Eric the Eel, but of tiny margins between competitors with pretty much the same skill set.

It’s been suggested that the UK Cycling team have formed the bridgehead of the transformation in our Olympic performance through the focus on the much vaunted “aggregation of marginal gain”. The cyclists are also particularly interesting because they seem to be capable of raising their game for the Olympics to a level well ahead of their performance in the World Championships.  As the Women’s hockey team showed, it’s not all about skills, but it’s the effort and determination that makes the defining difference.

This suggests that having the skills to perform at the highest level is a prerequisite but not the full picture and if we apply that to the grand plan for “excellence” then the starting point is the quality of education and training that is on offer, whether to young people or more broadly to our workforce as a whole. 

But a thriving education and development sector alone will not make us metaphorical medal winners. If there is a serious commitment to applying the spirit of the Olympics to a post Brexit environment then we also need to recognise the critical role that the coaches and support teams played in this success. 

So when we talk about skills, we need to be clear that it’s about developing and harnessing people’s skills and the reality is that the everyday equivalent of the coaching and support staff for most people is their line manager and other leaders.

And this is where the plans for a blueprint for excellence become more complex. In the last six years the UK Government has shown a marked reluctance to get involved in anything to do with what happens in the workplace (with the amendment of trade union legislation being a notable exception).   

The situation is different in Scotland where Nicola Sturgeon’s economic strategy places investment in skills and workplaces in which people are able to thrive and flourish through innovation and inclusion. For example the strategy states:

 “Creating better workplaces, enhancing employee engagement, and fully utilising the skills of our workforce will be key to driving greater levels of productivity, bringing about benefits for businesses and the economy”.

Investors in People (IIP) is one of the obvious tools at the disposal of all four UK Governments.  The new generation of IIP launched in 2015 is based on research into High Performance Work Practices, and the alignment to the principles of marginal gain are clearly aligned to the principles of continuous improvement as Sir Dave Brailsford describes in such a compelling way.

With better workplaces and employee engagement being at the heart of their economic strategy, it is perhaps no surprise that Investors in People is an asset which the Scottish Government is already using to support its agenda.  IIP features in the Scottish Business Pledge, is part of both Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise support to employers, and underpins Skills Development Scotland’s Skills for Growth programme, whilst the development of the Investors in Young People programme in Scotland has helped over 400 organisations to date.

So the ambition that UK industry outperforms its competitors in the way that our Olympians have done is a very laudable and pretty sensible proposition.  The question is how the Government can do this without “getting in the way”? 

The answer surely starts with Investors in People.

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