On learning from Rio

We talk a lot in the public sector about transformational change. And there are, of course, examples of innovation across the country. But reflecting on the recent Rio Olympics and the journey that many sports have been on over the last 20 years leads me to realise that it’s been a truly transformational process. If you’ll forgive me for jumping on the ‘post-Olympic commentary’ bandwagon, I wonder what we could do to draw learning from this and apply it to our public services.

The most forward-thinking sports and businesses are applying this idea of marginal gains, that small improvements, whilst not on their own necessarily enough to make a difference, can in aggregate be the difference between gold and silver. And contrast the way some sports such as cricket, tennis and the NFL have embraced new technology and methods and others seem reluctant to embrace change. Matthew Syed was on the radio suggesting sports such as football are stuck in the ‘it’s not the way we do things’ mentality. Keep doing what you’ve always done. Yet we know this isn’t the way to improve. The question I was left pondering is why do they do this? Is it the threat of change? Or maybe the threat is perceived as undermining someone’s expertise? What’s for sure is that the world continues to change and we have to find ways to embrace the opportunities that arise as a result. 

Yet it seems to me that when we look at how to apply such learning from one sector into another we just don’t do this in a systematic way, if at all. Why shouldn’t we learn form others that are successful in their own field… and why shouldn’t they share their approaches and methodologies? The argument that it’s context-specific (translated variously as ‘you don’t understand’ and, of course, ‘that wouldn’t work here’) blocks learning and progress whilst preserving the domain of the few that have such insight. So I would argue that there is no place for this approach, that we have to embrace change and the opportunities it brings. Transparency and openness can in turn lead to progress. 

As more information becomes accessible to a wider audience it becomes easier to learn from what others have learned. I remember trying to improve my archery in the late 1980s. If you didn’t have access to a quality coach it was almost impossible to find the information and advice you needed to get better – beyond a few books or magazine articles that you had to interpret yourself. Now you can not only watch high definition slow-motion footage of the world’s best, you can easily take video of your own performance and email to a coach who could be anywhere in the world, and receive constructive feedback. The sharing of information and insights helps drive up performance from international level right down to the grass-roots. This is how improvements are made, and they can be made on a scale not seen before. 

This is compounded by the fact that it’s usually been the preserve of failure to drive inquests into learning. We learn what works by realising what was absent in defeat. Lose 5-0 to the Aussies at cricket in Australia or fail to reach the group stages of the football World Cup? There’s an inquest and someone produces a report to identify what went wrong. We do this in public services and other walks of life too, and rightly so. Of course we must learn when things don’t go well. But I’d love to see an enquiry into success too. Into the principles that underpinned that success, not the specifics (which are what gives us a competitive edge). More than that, imagine if we had a multi-disciplinary team to translate that learning into all spheres of public and business life. How transformational might that be? Whilst we’re undoubtedly getting better at sharing this learning across sports (at least, to a certain extent), we could now get better at translating this into our public services. Is it not easier to win when you’re winning?

So I hope that others – more qualified than me – will unpick and analyse in more detail why this particular Olympics has been so successful for Team GB. Watching from afar it would appear to me to be a combination of factors including sustained funding with accountability for performance; shared knowledge over the conditions of success and the professionalism required; and a collective sense of belief within the team, despite the diversity of sports. Here the RSA’s Matthew Taylor might point out that this speaks to the hierarchical (structured funding), individualistic (applying marginal gains and professionalism) and solidaristic (collective sense of team) elements of co-ordination theory. One thing’s for sure, and that is we must learn from success more than we have tended to in the past. We must identify the key drivers of high performance and translate these lessons into range of different contexts – such as public services. And we should do this while we are enjoying an unqualified period of success, not waiting for future failure. As the saying goes, the better you get, the better you better get. Well, I think we can get better across domains. Perhaps we shouldn’t just leave that to chance.

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