The Olympics – Three Lessons For Procurement Leaders From Team GB

We started looking at Olympic lessons yesterday - what can we take from the success of Team GB that might point us in particular directions in terms of improving procurement performance? Our first point yesterday was that money does matter. But it certainly is not the only factor. Here are three more for today.

Talent spotting and identification of key success factors

GB appears to have done more than pretty much any other country in terms of spotting "raw talent" and getting the right people into the right sports. There are examples across a number of sports in the GB team , but rowing is a great example. The Rowing Team Start Programme literally advertised some years ago for tall, athletic young woman to give rowing a try. Helen Glover responded and was winning gold medals within a few years. The programme also goes around schools looking for kids with the right attributes.  Moe Sbihi was at a comprehensive school and had  never considered rowing but when the programme turned up with indoor erg machines, his results were off the chart. It might be apocryphal, but the story goes that the coach told him after that first few minutes that he could be an Olympic oarsman - and he won gold last week.

So do we do enough to identify natural, raw procurement talent? Would we even know what we were looking for - it is more difficult than rowing for sure to know exactly what the critical success factors are for individuals, but it is not impossible. If we could tie down that blend of analytical skills, a persuasive inter-personal style, natural commerciality, resilience and tenacity ... whatever we think the factors are, could we do more to identify young people or maybe colleagues in other functions who have them and could make gold medal winning procurement executives?

Ruthlessness and focus on performance

But raw talent is not enough - you have to perform. The GB team across the board has also been ruthless in terms of selection and performance focus. Past medal winners were discarded in sports like cycling because hungry young athletes were coming along and performing better. There is no sentimentality, and little room for excuses. Athletes do get injured, and are treated sympathetically through recovery, but ultimately it is a cruel sporting world.

Again, it is easier in that world than in business to identify who is performing and who isn't. But too often organisations put up with poor performance for too long, and that applies in procurement as elsewhere. We're not in favour of the old Jack Welch at GE "sack 10% of your workforce every year" approach but equally, if you're a CPO who has never fired someone for poor performance, then you're either very lucky - or too soft.

The other aspect of this is the concept of “incrementalism”. The GB teams have become expert in looking for every improvement, however tiny, to drive performance. That has to go along with diligent measurement of course, so you can evaluate the effect of such changes. But both that improvement concept and measurement are two areas where most procurement functions could do a lot better, we suspect.

Team spirit

After the discussion about firing staff, back to a more pleasant topic now. One factor that has shone through in Rio is the team spirit that it appears to run through pretty much all the GB teams in each sport. It is easier when things are going well of course, and naturally easier in team sports than individual, but even there when there is fierce competition within the team, you get the feeling that everyone is delighted when success does come to any individual.

This is clearly something that has been worked on by coaching staff - it does not just happen by accident. Psychology and great people management has come into the picture here. Perhaps it even plays into the selection criteria we talked about earlier. But when you see the GB women's hockey team literally throwing their faces in front of a very hard ball to stop a goal, or guys rowing to the point of unconsciousness, then that's real team spirit.

How do we build that in a procurement office in Peterborough or Pittsburgh, when gold medals are not at stake?  It's not easy, and there's certainly material there for some further discussion. But this is a key part of the job for anyone who manages a team, whether that is a handful of buyers or a function of thousands of people at IBM or Unilever. Celebrating team success, not just individual, is certainly part of it, and having measurable goals and external validation of success mush help too. And don't disregard going to the pub every now and again! But however we achieve it, this is a key element of success for procurement functions as well as Olympic teams.

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