Monday, 13 August 2012

Lessons from the Olympics

I have been absent from the blogosphere for a while but am pleased to find I have some new things to say about corporate governance, even if they arise from unusual directions. Take the London 2012 Olympic Games...what does that have to do with business management or governance issues? The link is that good news drives out bad news.

The UK press has engaged in a bout of national self-congratulation at the close of the Olympic fortnight, and it is well justified. Most things worked very well indeed. The stadiums were ready on time, were comfortable and visually exciting; the Olympic Park was a fun place that handled feeding throngs of people perfectly well and the capital's transport system coped with the extra journeys without breaking sweat. Above all the people of this country were really engaged. Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, went to see the Olympic torch carried by a relay of 8,000 people through the country to finish, eventually, at the Olympic stadium. I was one of those spectators who, alerted that someone I know slightly had been chosen to run one of the legs as a reward for his voluntary community work, went out on to a street near where I live to watch. I met dozens of other people I know by sight. I waved a flag and cheered, took photos and was uplifted by the experience. In another flash of inspiration the Olympic venues used a team of 70,000 volunteer stewards who smiled and cracked jokes and good humouredly chivvied the crowds to where they needed to go. I also bought tickets to a couple of events as well as going to free events held in London parks, where giant tv screens carried broadcasts of the competition to enormous crowds.

So yes, it was a triumph. I notice, however, that failings and lessons that might be learnt for the future are being overwhelmed by the good news and conveniently forgotten. Some examples...the ticketing was a fiasco that, in this digital age, should have been avoidable. Security was well the the expedient of drafting in the army to help. Yet the problems that arose on the very eve of the games should have been predicatable months, if not years in advance. To make way for the expected throngs of visitors the authorities called on people to avoid London, which resulted in empty roads, empty shops and empty hotels. The experience of the Beijing Olympics four yours ago should have alerted everyone to the problem of empty seats at competitions, yet it was apparently a surprise all over again, and even if it is the fault of the Olympic organising committee it could still have been addressed well in advance. I could go on...but I will mention just one more thing, that general good sportsmanship was nearly, but not absolutely, universal. A member of one of Great Britain's medal winning cycling teams admitted on a tv interview having deliberately crashed his bike to get a restart. Instead of being disqualified (which should have happened), the matter was quietly forgotten. I also noticed that US swimming coaches implied drug use about a 15 year old Chinese competitor who clocked up a remarkable time to win a gold medal, yet were silent when a 15 year old American did the same thing...hmmm.

Going back to linkages...the same thing occurs in business. Failure and bad behaviour are forgotten if someone can associate themselves with a bigger triumph. Just today a book review in the newspaper brought to mind how individuals take credit also for triumphs that were not theirs: a new biography of the iconic  Israeli general Moshe Dayan explains that he initially argued against policies which he later claimed credit for, after they proved successful. The lesson for us all is that we must struggle to stop failure being forgotten because lessons will then not be learnt and mistakes will be repeated in future - perhaps with more serious consequences next time. Individuals who should be removed from office may also go on to perpetrate further 'crimes'. In practice how do we stop the well-connected from evading responsibility? It is hard and may call for individual courage on the part of whistle blowers or on the part of those who seek investigation of the failures or bad behaviour that has been buried. When everyone around only wants to talk about good news and to forget the bad news it can be emotionally hard to go against the crowd but it needs to be done. Are you an Olympic champion, will you stand up and do it?

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