OK, one last Olympic-related posting, then I’ll move on. What most struck me about spending some time at the Games last week was the enthusiasm of the volunteers, or Games Makers as they were called. These purple-shirted members of the public were from all walks of life, giving up their time for two weeks to be part of something special, something they could tell their grandchildren. Some were assigned to queue control, some were posted around London to provide help and information, and some were given duties at events. At the volleyball, for instance, they even had volunteers whose job it was to wipe the sweat off the courts between points! So it got me thinking about how far people will go, and how enjoyable it is for them and others, when they are truly engaged. Engagement is about having an emotional connection to a cause, a theme, an idea, a purpose. The Olympic volunteers had this engagement in spades but it can be replicated in any organisation if the sense of purpose and level of involvement is strong enough. Games Makers reminds me of the term Meaning Makers, referred to by Dan Pink in his book A Whole New Mind about the rise of the right-brained worker. Meaning Makers are people in the organisation who ‘get it’ and have the skills to make sense of the world to those around them. And it is a skill. Meaning Makers don’t read out briefings and deliver PowerPoints. They interpret and convey messages in a way that connects because they are truly engaged with the subject matter themselves. They communicate with passion, clarity and credibility. One of the problems we have in internal communications is that we allocate communication responsibilities based on job title and status rather than on ability and character. Of course, some communications need to be delivered by leaders, but many don’t. Meaning Makers can be those subject experts who just have a flair about the way they communicate, like those scientists who can explain the laws of physics and astronomy to schoolchildren. I’d love to see organisations identify and appoint Meaning Makers who can take on some communication and education responsibilities in addition to their ‘day job’, like the London Games Makers. Let’s have people with a passion for communication and an ability to engage others be recognised as official Meaning Makers on a particular topic, so that anyone in the organisation can go to them to learn and gain clarity on whatever topic they specialise in. For instance, who is the Finance Meaning Maker who can explain transactional finance and SAP in a way that engages and makes sense? Who is the Operating Model Meaning Maker that can bring structure and processes to life? I’m not saying Meaning Makers should all wear coloured shirts but I would like to see them recognised formally – maybe they have a sign over their desk or a badge so people know who they are and that they are there to help colleagues make sense of the world. London Games Makers were selected not on their occupation or role in society but purely on their enthusiasm, personality and their ability to connect with people. So should Meaning Makers. Creative internal communication is not about doing it all yourself, it’s about using the talents and skills of those colleagues with great communication skills in the organisation. So bring on the Meaning Makers!
By now you would have gathered that I love the Olympics. Yesterday was why. It wasn’t just the fact that it was a great day for Team GB, which I could appreciate and celebrate as a patriotic sports lover. It was the fact that I found my heart thumping, my mouth dry with anticipation, my hands clammy with nervous excitement …. because of shooting! Shooting? Are you kidding? What’s more, I punched the air in celebration in a judo match. And then I was shouting at the TV and feeling like a proud father… because of canoe slalom! I even found myself watching some boxing yesterday, a sport I can’t stand. Every four years I find myself magnetically attracted to sports I wouldn’t otherwise shake a stick at. You wouldn’t catch me near a horse in a million years but yesterday I watched an hour of dressage! And what’s more, I loved it. But from a human behaviour perspective, I also find big sporting events fascinating. They tell us a lot about patriotism of course, but also a lot about engagement and the need to belong. Yesterday I picked my daughter up from a summer camp and while I was waiting with the other parents, all everyone was talking about was the gold medals GB had won that afternoon. People were happy and excited. What I noticed most was the fact that everyone was referring to “we” rather than “them” or “GB”. I’m proudly wearing my Team GB t-shirt as I type this and next week I’ll be sitting in the Olympic Stadium myself with a silly hat and giant flag. So why do we do this? The fact is, we don’t do it for the team, we do this for ourselves. When Sir Chris Hoy crosses the line to break the world record and grab a fifth Olympic gold, we don’t cheer for him … we cheer for us. We don’t celebrate because we’re “pleased for the athlete”, we celebrate because we’re pleased for ourselves. If a shooter we’ve never heard of wins a gold medal for our team, why are we so happy? It’s because we feel part of the team and we share a common sense of purpose. What he’s done has made us feel successful. For many of us, sport reflects our own values and aspirations in life. We all have dreams and goals but we also know that life is hard and, as Mick Jagger keeps pointing out, we can’t always get what we want. I know I’ve written about this before, but I love the way that sport brings us stories that we can all relate to – struggle, the pursuit of excellence, personal commitment, overcoming adversity, dealing with tragedy, the reliance on others, fluctuating self-confidence, the desire to ‘live the dream’. We also use sport to reflect on our own lives – our health and fitness, the choices we made when we were younger, the opportunities we wish we’d had, the regrets we have now. I’m a middle-aged, slightly overweight bloke with a bad back. When I watch the Olympics, I wish to God I was ten (my daughter’s age). We see ourselves in those athletes. When they do well, we feel it. When they fail, we feel it more. Not because we’re athletes but because we know what it feels like when things go well, and when they go wrong. But you know, it doesn’t have to be sport that incites these feelings. Work can do this too if only we’d build better workplace communities, engender a greater sense of purpose and meaning, tell more human stories of achievement and ‘struggle’, allow people to express themselves, encourage cross-functional education and experience. And of course, if we were more creative in the way we communicate. We need to humanise the workplace. It is possible to create an environment where the bloke in Finance feels motivated and becomes more productive because he’s been inspired by the woman in HR doing a great job? Where people talk about ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. Where organisations recognise people as individuals rather than resources. And where one team has a group hug because another team has been successful. Sorry for all these Olympic-related posts. I’ll stop now.
OK, the Olympics are here and I’m more excited than a roomful of Pointer Sisters. So here, for communicators, leaders and managers everywhere, are my top ten inspirations we can take from the Olympics. So please, spread the word, share this post and let’s inject some Olympic spirit into the workplace …
1. The Olympic motto – Faster, Higher, Stronger – means something. They are values that inspire. Why? Because (i) they are adjectives, (ii) they can be measured and (iii) they endure. Too many organisational values are bland nouns with no call to action and no “reason to get up in the morning” quality about them. When employees start tattooing their organisational values on their bodies, you know you’ve got something special!
2. The Olympics brings communities together. The torch relay has shown us the power of community and the inherent human search for meaning. I stood in the rain in Tatton Park for over an hour to see a bloke I’ve never met jog past me with an 800g aluminium flame-holder surrounded by bodyguards and a massive convoy of police, coaches and sponsored vehicles. Why would I do that? Of course, it’s not what it is, it’s what it means. It’s what it symbolizes. And anything that can bring communities together like this has surely got to be a good thing. Our organisations are full of human beings searching for meaning and striving to belong. Remember, the best things in life are not things. They’re experiences.
3. Athletes understand that performance is as much about the mind as the body. The ability to carry out the physical requirements of the job – the tasks – is only part of what makes an Olympian. The job title for a sprint hurdler is to run fast in straight line and jump over some sticks. The real work though goes on in the mind – the focus, the motivation, the concentration, the dedication, the commitment, the relentless pursuit of excellence, the confidence, the sense of occasion. For athletes, high performance is a whole-body and whole-brain concept. As it should be at work.
4. The Olympics is a triumph of diversity. I don’t just mean racial, religious and physical diversity, I mean the diversity of sports. Ever since the industrial revolution and Adam Smith’s theories about the division of labour, we have become obsessed with pigeon-holing people into jobs, roles and professions. We tend to stay stuck in one occupational sector most of our lives and we focus on becoming a ‘high achiever’ in one area rather than a ‘wide achiever’ in many. Not only does sport celebrate the concept of a multi-discipline approach (decathlon, heptathlon, modern pentathlon, triathlon etc) but the Olympics exposes us to sports we would never normally engage with. It’s a time for learning new skills, expanding our minds and gaining new experiences. So if you work in Marketing, reach out to your colleagues in Accounts.
5. Sporting metaphors work. Whether you’re stepping up to the plate, raising the bar, passing the baton or punching above your weight, you can’t deny that sporting metaphors work. According to prominent linguist George Lakoff, metaphors are key to understanding and reasoning. “Human thought processes are largely metaphorical”, he said. So in business, using metaphor and storytelling to convey a complex message is a powerful way to communicate. The Olympics provides us with metaphors and stories in spades. So, on your marks …
6. Cynics exist – get over it. Our workplaces reflect wider society, and in all walks of life there are people who are cynical, critical, indifferent or just plain grumpy. The Olympics brings out the best and the worst of human behaviour, particularly in terms of public perception. To some it’s a once-in-a-lifetime celebration of sport, endeavour and human spirit. To others it’s a commercialised, regionally-biased, elitist waste of money. Logos, mascots, ceremonies, slogans, designs, processes … they all incite opinions. So do strategies, corporate comms and change programmes. It’s a fact of life. Don’t let them get you down.
7. A communicator’s Aladdin’s Cave. Imagine the amount of information and data swirling around an Olympic Games. Twenty six sports, 300 events, 14,000 competitors, 20,000 media people, all with stories to tell and messages to get across. But do we complain about information overload? Of course not, we pick and choose the messages we want to engage with, and how we want to consume them. And what a choice we have! I’m a big believer in learning from other worlds, and the Olympics offers us communicators ideas and inspirations around every corner –the clarity of symbols, the importance of identity, the discipline of campaigns, the power of stories, the integration of channels, the layering of information, the opportunity for interaction, the thirst for education, the demand for speed, the need for accuracy. Watch, learn and steal with pride.
8. Sport is creative. If you look at sport as a ‘job of work’ like any other, you clearly see the importance of creativity and innovation to achieving high performance. Athletes are continually on the lookout for innovations that will make a difference. Some are legal (aero-dynamic cycling helmets), some are illegal (performance enhancing drugs) and some are controversial (hi-tech swimsuits). Gymnasts, divers and synchronised swimmers are actually judged on their creativity. Training regimes, diets, equipment, scoring systems, venues and techniques are continually reviewed and improved. There’s no such thing as business as usual in sport. In sport, as in business, it’s change agility and relentless creativity that makes winners.
9. There’s nothing wrong with having fun. The Olympics is the ultimate playground but the office can be playful too. Anything which gets people playing, having fun and laughing has got to be a good thing. Play exercises the right side of our brain. It makes us more productive, it builds relationships, it breaks down barriers, it brings people together, it encourages competition and collaboration, it harnesses creativity, it MAKES PEOPLE HAPPY. From flicking paper clips into a cup to baking Olympic cup cakes, let’s use this opportunity to inject some play into our working lives.
10. It’s what you do that counts. Athletes, like organisations, are continually striving for competitive advantage. At the Olympics, being world class is not enough. The difference between success and failure can be a fraction of a second, a twitch on the start line, a pull of an oar, a wobble on the beam, a puff of air in the pool, a millimetre of sand, a subjective opinion of a judge. Four years of training can come down to what happens in ten seconds. Sport reminds us that whilst strategies, visions, business cases, presentations, briefings, PR messages, structures, policies, standards and operating models all have their place, it’s ultimately grit, boldness, sweat and human endeavour that makes the difference. Let’s finish with a quote from Goethe: “What you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
Enjoy the Olympics everyone.
Watching the thousands of people line the streets to welcome the Olympic torch through the streets of Britain is not only great news to those of us who support the Games, but it tells us something about community and the inherent human desire to ‘be part of something’. It also shows why we should be careful about over-reacting to criticism. You’d have thought from reading some papers and listening to radio phone-ins over the last year that most of the population is against the idea of the London Olympics, such is the prominence given to criticisms about ticketing, cost, London-bias and alleged corruption. But the streets don’t lie. Seeing the excitement build on the torch relay is a great, uplifting example of what happens when communities engage with an idea. It’s momentum. OK, it’s very well orchestrated and certainly over-marketed momentum, but there’s something also quite basic about the fervour that’s building across the UK. When interviewed, you hear people say “well it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity”. What is? Seeing a bloke in a tracksuit walk up a road with a torch? It’s not even the same torch (each runner has their own torch with ten minutes flame time). Of course not, people turn out to FEEL part of it. It’s symbolic. It’s what it represents. It’s an opportunity to engage with something big, patriotic, influential and inclusive (we can’t all have tickets but we can all connect with the Olympics through the torch relay). And what does this desire to be part of something tell us about people’s motivation at work? To me, it’s a reminder that we should keep looking outside of our industry to see how people react to events and messages, and to see what we can bring back into our own world. There are lessons out there in all walks of life.