I have spent the last few days as enthralled by the Olympics as everyone else.
While the feats of the British team have been electrifying (Andy Murray avenging his defeat at the hands of Roger Federer is my favourite so far), there is no question that the main man has been Usain Bolt.
It seems there is nothing that he can’t do. Superhuman and yet so laid back, even the adverts he is in are funny. What is it that makes him so exceptional?
Of all the thousands of elements that contribute to him performing at the level he does, the one that struck me on Sunday night was the coordination of every aspect of his race. He is focused on the finish line, and everything is aligned to get him there as quickly as possible.
Every part of his body does its job exactly as it should: his legs, of course, but also his arms, back, head – every aspect works together to propel him forward as fast as possible. His mind plays its part as well: he regularly talks about not getting too stressed before a race, and his relaxed attitude probably ensures he does not tighten up and lose speed.
Contrast this with the courage of the Mongolian judoka who took silver in the men’s heavyweight category, because he contested the final with a torn cruciate ligament. Or with the superlative Beth Tweddle, who landed from the uneven bars with her hips behind her feet, took a step back, and settled for bronze.
In both these cases, some part of the machine was not working in concert with all the others (torn ligament, mis-aligned hips and feet), and I think this cost both these outstanding athletes the gold medal.
What can high growth businesses and individuals take from this? They are like Usain Bolt in that they want to progress rapidly in the direction of their ambitions. Just like him, they will need every aspect working in concert with every other aspect in order to do this as fast as possible.
A business as aligned as Usain Bolt is a company where everyone understands what the purpose and responsibility of management is, and how to fulfil them. It is an organisation whose values and principles of operation are visible in all day-to-day interactions.
It is a company where it doesn’t matter if it is the MD or the most junior manager who is delegating, setting goals, sending emails, running appraisals, taking decisions, drawing up plans, chairing meetings – they both understand the same things about how to run these activities so that they serve the overall goal they are striving for, and how these activities inter-relate with each other to propel the company forwards.
This is the equivalent of Usain Bolt’s alignment: everyone understands the same things and operates in the same way. Of course, the MD will have more experience and quite likely will be more subtle in execution that the first-line manager – the crucial thing is that if you were to look at each of them in action, you would be able to see they share a common approach to what they are doing. Microsoft’s Mark East has called this “management DNA”.
This kind of coordinated understanding and approach is hugely effective, but not as common as it should be in the business world. As common is a haphazard mosaic of interpretations and approaches – organisations where there are ‘good’ managers and ‘bad’ managers, competing interest groups in the senior team, mixed levels of cooperation, etc.
This is like Usain Bolt having a sprinter’s legs, but arms that prefer to be doing swimming’s butterfly stroke, feet that spend most of the first 50 metres trying to play football, and a head that thinks it should be bobbing for apples.
Maybe Bolt could still medal running in this way (who would bet against him?!) but why should we take the risk?