Ideas on People and Performance, Team Building, Motivation and Innovation

Gold, The Olympics and Sports as metaphors for Businesses

In one of my LinkedIn groups, the question was asked:
 — What Does ‘Going for the Gold’ Mean for Your Business? —

…and posed this way: “The recent U.S. Olympic swimming trials brought elation for some athletes, heartbreak for others. Find out what we can all learn from their passionate pursuit of winning.” with a link to a blog. So, I responded:

We use the metaphor of mining gold as the prime anchor point of our team building game, The Search for The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. We often have the most senior manager in the group leading tabletop discussions and then asking for Big Ideas around the question, “What does Mining Gold mean to us as an organization,” after we have discussed the ideas of collaboration generating optimized results, overall. The key, here, are “us” and “we” as shown below:

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But focus on winning and getting gold is a double-edged sword, for sure. High level business results require an overall sense of shared purpose and a great deal of teamwork between departments. There is generally a requirement for some level of continuous continuous improvement and a degree of commitment and ownership. Business benefits more by overall collaboration than by individual success / winning in nearly every case — competition is generally sub-optimizing and high levels of competition can generate all sorts of negative side-effects.

I think collaboration appears nicely in many sporting activities, such as a team working together to win the Tour de France or that great movie about the Jamaica Bobsled Team and what it took to get them there. It required collaboration, for sure.

In The Olympics, the focus is mostly on individuals winning while in business, there must be more than one winner for an organization to succeed. Similarly, many of these Olympic athletes focus all of their time and energy on peaking for one event or one day of competition. In business, we see that in “fixed interval scallop curve” behavior where there is a great deal of focused effort just before that date and then a long “post reinforcement pause” thereafter until we get close to the reinforced period of time.

Car dealerships / car sales are a case in point for this scheduled behavior, whereby the sales at the end of the month are much more focused and driven (and the customer can get a much better deal) than they are at the start of a new month. Given how they measure and reward performance, the results are pretty predictable and employee turnover is often high.

Most of our businesses require a more steady-state level of performance to succeed long term. Consistency and teamwork are the key, not peaked performance and extreme levels of competition.

In Lost Dutchman, the expressed goal is, “to mine as much gold as we can.” But what happens so often is that each of the tabletops gets focused on its own success — something we call, “My Team, My Team, My Team,” and that focus generates measurable sub-optimized levels of OVERALL group performance. The key word is “we.”

Competition is a good thing, since it is generally motivating for most people. But it is NOT motivating for everyone and it has a whole big bunch of negative side effects. (I would guess that 99.995% of the population is NOT motivated by The Olympics and that their levels of personal exercise and activity are not improved by their “engagement.” One might argue that we might even see a lot more sitting / watching activity than anything else during that time.)

And, without all the regulatory bodies and attention to detail in high level sports, we might see many of these top athletes take measures that many might call cheating. Look at the hundreds of pages of NCAA regulations designed to prevent universities from cheating! Performance enhancing drugs and other external treatments are common — Lasik surgery is probably common in pro sports. Heck, there is blood doping and steroids and lots of other things going on, even in amateur sports. Cheating is common in many sports and — well, heck — a lot of businesses (see Mortgage Meltdown and think “Countrywide.”)

In an organization, we want everyone to feel like a winner and to contribute to the overall results of the organization. Normal interdepartmental competition is often a real problem, and has impacts on customers and profitability. I think we could all probably tell stories about things such as that.

Gold is a great metaphor, but sometimes athletics is NOT the best metaphor for most organizations and for society in general. Focusing on winners is often great, but doing that reinforces the reality that there are a lot more losers than winners in any competition.

Have FUN out There!

Your thoughts on metaphors and learning points like these?

Dr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant. Connect with Scott on Google+ – you can reach Scott at


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  1. An added comment:

    A long and detailed article in Smithsonian Magazine’s July / August issue is called “The Science of Doping” and gets into the constant chase and battle between the athletic dopers, the coaches, the organizers and the pharmaceutical people. It details a lot about the cheating that has been proven, be it steroids or blood doping and even experimental substances not yet tested for safety — all to simply give the athlete some advantage.

    Again, I do not think that high level sports are a really good metaphor for how we want organizations to be, but maybe they do accurately reflect the behaviors of really senior people or the Banksters on Wall Street who have shown that they will do anything to win, even devastating other people’s lives.

    There are many examples of this in the article and in readings about people and performance and what they will do in regards to cheating in order to win.

  2. I was about to write a blog entry for my website regarding sports metaphors at work. After reading your article, it is clear that I have to “get back to practice” before I can write an article that covers it like yours does. Great job.

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