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Having stayed up late several days this week to watch the Rio 2016, and especially the track cycling, I’ve been reflecting on the tremendous medal success of the British team, and considering what lays behind this apparent sporting “competitive advantage”. And I think there are some important reminders for us in business too.

The British certainly don’t have an advantage in population size (22nd in world ranking) or a monopoly on sports talent. And elite athletes from all nations work hard and make sacrifices for their sport – so what is this mysterious advantage that gives GB its competitive advantage, currently placing it second in the overall medal table? 

Is it better technology? Well perhaps we might have claimed this in previous years, but in the Rio velodrome other nations demonstrated new aerodynamic technologies that GB didn’t have: left-hand drivetrains (USA), custom skinsuits optimised for the speed of each event (Italy) and even pin-less race numbers (Australia).

Ok, so its money, right? Well, it is true that the British team is incredibly well funded as a result of the National Lottery, which gives 20% of ticket sales to sports. UK Sport, which funds elite athletes, had more than £250 million pounds to spend in the lead-up to London 2012, and the British cycling team alone received more than £30 million from UK Sport. But if money alone is the answer, then why haven’t British athletes been consistently successful at the World Championships since 2012? Money helps, but there must be more to the story.

One of the “secrets” seems to me to be ruthless prioritisation. For example: when it might seem natural for a public body to spread its funds across all sports, they instead invest disproportionally in sports with the greatest potential to deliver medals. And they reduce or cut funding entirely for sports that have failed to deliver on their promise – for example in 2014 this was the controversial fate for basketball, despite it being the second most popular youth sport in Britain, it was judged to be a poor medal-winning return on investment.

And cycling has gone further, prioritising its investments on the track where the most medals are available and the uncertainties can be managed. And within track cycling the team has prioritised Rio 2016, seemingly treating other events as mere testing grounds – a decision that likely cost them success in intermediate years. I think it is this ruthless prioritisation of the opportunities with the biggest return on investment for the British team's goals that makes such a difference.

But surely this approach is at odds with aggregation of “marginal gains” – British Cycling’s famous approach of incrementally improving many separate aspects that together can make a big difference to overall performance. How can you both improve everything you do a little bit – while focussing only on the biggest opportunities? What is the common theme in these apparently contradictory approaches?

I think a critical factor is the common evidence-based strategy behind both ruthless prioritisation and marginal gains. By being crystal clear about their objective (win medals) and desired outcome (to go measurably faster), the common metric of success for every team member is clear. This approach frees the organisation to move beyond the status quo and challenges them to pursue “what we can collectively do to do go faster”.

The result: six of the ten track cycling gold medals on offer; more than twice as many medals in total compared to the second place team, the Netherlands; and every member of the GB track team returning with a medal. Very impressive – and after success in Beijing and London this is a track record from a team that has found their “unfair” competitive advantage. As sprint coach Justin Grace said when asked what the special ingredient was, “we do everything, in every department a little bit better than the others, and that’s all”. I believe it is not because they have tried to do everything well – but because they have tried to do one specific, common thing best.

Isn’t a common, evidence-based innovation strategy critical in our companies too?  There will always be more demands and opportunities than available resources. As British Cycling has shown, if we want to create our own unfair competitive advantage we can get a good start by being crystal clear about what we want to be best at and how we measure that success. This will free the corporate athletes in your organisation to ruthlessly pursue your common victory – whether measured in medals, satisfied customers or financial return.

Does your team share common metrics of success?  Do you have the evidence to ruthlessly prioritise those winning opportunities?  Do you have an evidence-based innovation strategy?

If you’d like discuss how we can help your company with an innovation strategy please get in touch with Alan at

Image source: lazyllama /

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