When does a successful method become a liability?

Being highly proficient at the Western roll was a sure-fire way to high jump success – until Dick Fosbury came along and changed the game.

Being a travel agent able to access and compare hotels and flights from different companies and making a commission as a result was the way to sell holidays until the internet enabled Expedia, Airbnb and co. to come along.

For the last 3 Olympic cycles Team GB has had unprecedented success. 4thplace in the Beijing medal table, a record 65 medals in London and then being the only host nation to ever go better in the following games by landing 67 medals in Rio. The Paralympic programme has been similarly successful and in the Winter Games the medal factory continues in Skeleton bob (despite have no track and no snow in the UK…).

It is built on a foundation of no compromise and a significant amount of targeted funding from UK Sport designed to win medals. 

How long can the method continue to be successful for? When does it become a liability?

The programme is in place for Tokyo 2020 but after that? Will the performances be sustained and even exceed Rio?

At what point do you re-invent yourself and do something different? Do you wait for the results to drop off and then change? Or do you take the plunge and change while you are at the top of your game? That is the question being wrestled with by UK Sport.

The brave option would be to re-invent yourself now from a position of strength. Oh, to be a fly on the wall!

When 'No compromise' becomes 'Win at all costs'

For several years now the mantra of UK Sport, the body which largely funds the British Olympic Sports, has been ‘No Comprise’. It is an approach which has brought massive success as measured by medals in the last 3 Summer Olympics.

Similar mantras have been adopted in business in pursuit of outstanding results and there is much business literature which focuses on these success stories. But what happens at the edge, when ‘No compromise’ morphs into ‘Win at all costs’ and what can organisations do to ensure that they stay true to their original intentions?

In recent years we have seen many examples of where ‘No Compromise’ strays into grey areas or even worse. In sport we have the bullying allegations at British Cycling, the McLaren 'spygate', Half Marathon winners cutting the course and the notorious Jiffy bag/shoddy medical record keeping at Team Sky. Businesses have equally been caught short. Tesco was so focused on sales targets that it lost sight of the accounting rules and importance of its relationships with suppliers while Volkswagen simply falsified emissions data because ‘everybody else does it’.

How do professional organisations run by smart people get themselves into these situations?

In pursuit of results ‘No compromise’ can lead people to stray into grey areas, especially when it comes to behaviour. The message is clear, results come first everything else second. What follows is not necessarily illegal but it is often unethical and certainly not what the original ‘No compromise’ approach envisaged. From there it is a very short step to breaking the rules when the pressure is really on to deliver results.

What can leaders do to ensure that their organisation avoid this trap?

When setting difficult targets with potentially big negative consequences there is a huge responsibility to ensure that the targets are realistic and that the resources to achieve them are available. If you are an Olympic sport with a large percentage of your future funding (and no alternative sources) determined by the number of medals that you win then straying into the grey zone becomes an option to preserve your funding. If you are a Retail or Auto Executive with impossible sales targets and your job on the line, then stepping over the line can become tempting – especially if you witness others doing it. If your people don’t believe that they can achieve the goal fairly then you are exposing your organisation to the risk that will achieve it unfairly with all the consequences that entails.

Leaders also need to be absolutely clear about where the boundaries lie. If the line is drawn at illegal/against the rules then you are inviting people to step into the grey areas, especially as every individual will have their own interpretation of what is ethical based on their own values and experiences. Leaders need to set the standard of behaviour expected and role model it visibly, calling out situations where the standard drops. The obvious consequence of this is if that standards come first then sometimes the results will not be achieved.

If you want to avoid the reputational damage that comes with straying into the grey areas of ‘No compromise’ then standards of behaviour have to come before results.