At the sunset of another successful Olympics, the analysts and pundits are once again doing the analysis to determine if these latest games are the most successful of all time. Sprinting, the glamour sport of the summertime games, always gets out-sized attention in this debate. Sprinting is raw speed, adrenalin and explosive power. Hundredths of a second is the difference between dreams fulfilled, years of celebrity and glory, or the crushing defeat of failed expectations.
An interesting perspective on historical performance appeared last weekend in the New York Times from Kevin Quealy and Graham Roberts, who analyzed the history of the 100 meters from the games of 1896, won by Thomas Burke of the United States, to the amazing performance of Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in 2012. After 116 years of the games, it turns out the delta on performance is less than three seconds. Bolt’s time of 9.63 in 2012 about two and a half seconds better than Burke’s 1896’s time of 12.0 seconds.
It turns out that 100 years of training, science, nutrition, equipment, and coaching improvements to deliver better performance come down to hundredths of a second. In real terms, this is a meaningful difference and very clear when you watch the video of the race, but it is also a reasonable metaphor for the reality of modern business.
As any executive will tell you, operating a business requires continuous training and the margin of victory – winning a deal, executing an acquisition, launching a new product, or delivering the quarterly EPS numbers – is often accomplished by the smallest of margins. Many times years of investment, product innovation and human execution come down to very small things and are the difference between success and failure.
And for every win, there is fierce competition. Even the highest performing businesses have relentless competitors continually challenging for market share and customer attention, delivering product and services innovation. Tellingly in the 100-meter sprint as in business, sustained leadership is extraordinarily difficult. Only three men have ever repeated as champions, Archie Hahn in 1904 and 1906, Carl Lewis in 1988 and 1992 and Bolt in 2008 and 2012. Even the brightest of champions often fail to repeat, or even to medal. As just as quickly as they were in a position of leadership, they fall back in the pack - just ask RIM, Zynga, Groupon, or MSFT.
History will decide where these Olympics rate, but they provided no shortage of amazing performances and memorable moments, even at the expense of work productivity for a few. All of the athletes deserved congratulations for their amazing performances (a few badminton teams not withstanding). And here’s hoping that the rest of us who aspire to great performances in the world of business log out of the Olympics and into applications that give us a performance advantage. Every second counts.