What can sport teach the business world?
It isn't unusual these days to read about how much sports
management could still have a lot to learn from the business world.
Theories, concepts, models that have proven to be efficient in corporate
companies that the sport world could use, adapting them to its own
needs with the constant objective of improving performance. But what
about the opposite for once?
It is a fact that sport provides the best success stories of all. Great
teams that have been leaders in their own leagues for decades in a row.
Leagues that for years provide the best quality games in the world. Or
younger teams or organisations that have only been around for a short
time but through a series of smart decisions taken by a handful of key,
focused leaders with a vision, have risen to the top of their sport in
just a few years. It doesn't matter: sport has always been a source of
inspiration for those who are hungry for great success stories,
including the business world. So the question is: is there something
sport can teach the business world?
What can sport teach business?
With its permanent load of uncertainty and constant intangible factors
influencing its outcome, what can sport really teach the business world?
Are there any recurrent concepts in winning sports organisations that
can be identified, conceptualized and put into a theory that the
corporate world could make good use of? In his book Peak Performance:
Inspirational Business Lessons from the World's Top Sports
Organisations, Prof. Clive Gilson (et al.) of the Waikato Management
School of New Zealand comes up with an answer to this question. And it
is an unequivocal "yes".
After having studied in great depth nine successful sports
organisations, including Team New Zealand, FC Bayern München, the NY
Yankees and WilliamsF1, over three years, the authors have synthesized
their learnings and propose a management model that can be profitable to
the business world. A model that can also be of great value to other
sports organisations that share the same objective of becoming "peak
performance organisations" (PPO).
The PPO theory they propose and that we will describe below is made up
of the four following principles:
Purpose provides the intent, the meaning and direction for the people
within the organisation. It is the dream that is created within the
organisation that will then be shared with every member.
The dream is the image of an ideal state or destiny for the organisation
that provides meaning and recognition for the individuals who work
there. It makes people want to belong to the organisation by bringing a
sense of collective importance. Family members become emotionally linked
to the organisation and are ready to make great sacrifices (physical,
financial) to achieve the dream. This is a crucial common point in all
But this dream needs to be turned into action. It must be imaginable,
feasible, important and exciting. Of course, it must be measurable. The
US Women's Soccer Team has set out to win all the major international
soccer tournaments. This provides them with a clear focus, which is the
third concept here: a PPO defines its greatest imaginable challenge and
then puts all its energy in to focusing systematically on achieving it.
The focus of a PPO is to concentrate all its energy on actions necessary
to achieve the organisation's purpose. It involves identifying specific
actions to be undertaken and it clarifies priorities and everyday
It is crucial to understand that the principle of practice
chronologically follows the principle of purpose and its identified
focus. The focus will establish direction and priorities from which the
practice or the structure will be established.
Practice is first about telling all (internal and external) about the
organisation's dream, history, legends and traditions. This provides the
meaning. Making the dream real is achieved by constant storytelling,
which, in leading sports organisations is most often done by charismatic
Second, sport PPOs succeed in creating a strong sense of family. They
all manage to create a calm, relaxed and informal environment that
facilitates the mental clarity necessary for performance, by exceeding
personal best. The family satisfies its members' basic need for
security, mostly financial of course. Also, people might come and go,
but they never really leave: collective knowledge stays in house.
Leading sports organisations have a phenomenal record of employing the
very best (very often internally promoted) and when they go, of
replacing them with others of equal or even greater ability. Physical
and financial infrastructure need to be strictly aligned to the
identified focus, and need a certain stability in order to achieve
Potency is the necessary energy, the drive, the engagement that needs to
be present in the organisation to sustain peak performance. Many of the
top performing sports organisations naturally have this "stamina",
because they are constantly looking forward to the next match, the next
competition, the next championship. Businesses can lack this kind of
potency but sport can teach them a lesson or two about what it takes.
It takes passion. People in the organisation need to be emotionally
connected, committed to the organisation. This is achieved by the
collective celebration of success and the constant celebration of those
who have contributed to it.
It takes harmony. Sport PPOs have created harmony because they have a
clear focus and people working for them have the feeling that they are
able to participate in it because they are part of the above mentioned
family. People in PPOs are mutually supportive, and the challenge they
are constantly facing is not too hard to reach, and not too easy. It is a
"just right" challenge.
In all sport PPOs, a clear purpose, a careful practice and a developing
potency are all prerequisites for performance. The sustaining of these
first three principles are almost always a reason from successful
But performance needs to be constantly challenged. PPOs challenge
performance by constantly making radical changes to the rules, the
league, the players, the game itself to enhance their ability to renew
the challenge. These incremental improvements are constant
ground-breaking ideas. Creativity is key, and in PPOs mental space is
created to allow for individual and group creativity.
Performance is also subjected to perfection in every aspect of the
running of the sport PPO. Each organisational process is seen as vital
by all members of the family and information flows freely between them.
From the improvement of the product to the delivery to the client
(sponsors, spectators, etc), all activities are constantly reviewed. If
these reviews show that a change in the processes themselves is needed,
the change is made without hesitation. In a PPO, everyone is looking to
constantly exceed organisational best, and it is all natural given the
fact that each of its family members have the energy, the will and the
"potency" to constantly improve
Where should one begin?
PPOs were not made overnight. The key in establishing PPO principles is
to get the right people to do it. Charismatic leaders, or "inspirational
players" are always the ones who, one way or the other, have succeeded
in sharing their passion. By sharing their passion, they have dreamt a
dream that has become a model to follow by "family members" who have, as
a team, succeeded in making it real. There is no magic formula to a
sport PPO. It starts with a dream, a dream that once it has become a
reality, is constantly renewed by those who want to keep it alive.
The next edition of TSE Commentator will return in more detail to some
of the key points mentioned above.