Thinking Differently – Olympic Style

I met Chris Boardman earlier this year. He was talking about the changes in thinking he had undergone to shift from a hugely successful solo sports star, to the leader of the Secret Squirrel Club. This club was where all the innovation and new designs emerged for the multi medal winning GB cycling team at the Beijing Olympics.

He set the scene with a few fun ideas. First he told the story of how the US space agency commissioned the first pen to write in space, spent $11m and then spotted the Russians using a pencil which cost them nothing to develop. Good story, strictly urban legend though.

Boardman then gave 6 of us an A4 sheet of paper and challenged us to be only in contact with the paper and each other after 30 seconds. We (just) managed to all hold hands and lean out from the paper on which our tippy toes were struggling to fit when the 30 second shout went up. He then folded the paper in half and challenged us again, and so this went on until we quickly collapsed in a heap on the floor. At that point he said, “Of course you could all have held the piece of paper and just jumped in the air at the 30 second point.” Yes we could, but we weren’t thinking differently.

I blogged about more of this here and Michael Lawrence who works for BP over in Chicago got in touch and asked for more news on Boardman’s different thinking. Sorry for the long delay Michael, what follows are the headlines from the discussion:

Learn to listen. The fun stuff that Boardman first spoke about was designed to do exactly that. Some careful listening to his instructions may have seen us crack the folded paper dilemma.

Involve people in the process. Boardman spoke about how his team would design stuff, do tests on the athletes, get information from the tests, and then tell the athletes the information. The athletes would ignore the feedback and carry on largely as before. They shifted to a position of co-creation. A great example is the aero helmets the cyclists wore in Beijing. The design team were struggling to get any meaningful feedback on some new designs they had presented to the athletes. Starting again from scratch, the team went through loads of different design shapes, different materials, and different tests. This time they did it together, involved the athletes from the start. After loads of experimentation (some if it quite bizarre by previous standards), the result was a successful piece of co-created kit which drew on the very best feedback from the whole team.

Be curious. The co-creation process outlined above helped foster a sense of curiosity. The team began to explore more and more possibilities; they lost the gut instinct to reject ideas too quickly, accumulating over 10,000 ideas in the run up to the Beijing Olympics.

Allow time for things to go wrong. Self explanatory and very important, though we seldom do it.

Choose your own attitude. You can only affect you, don’t obsess about the competition, focus on what you can achieve. Success comes from being as good as you can be, and this feeling helps put you in control.

He closed with a machine gun fire of High Performance Essentials:

Value diversity (Boardman got very passionate about this), clearly defined roles, parked egos to ensure the best group performance, share praise, trust, listening and understanding. Finally, he stressed the importance of fun as a great way of keeping a team together, particularly when things were stressful.

I hope Michael and many others find this useful. Feel free to add any further ideas of your own.