Management Lessons From The London Olympics

The London Olympics are just a couple weeks away. I visited the site recently and expected to find a flurry of last minute, near-panic construction activity. There were a few bored-looking guards stationed around the site at gates, but beyond that--nothing. If I were in charge of this project, I would be on the phone with my contractor right now, leaving an urgent message (or six).

At ground level, things did not look ready. I took the Tube to Stratford Station, the last stop on the line, and got disgorged into the basement of a huge shopping center. From there, I followed my way toward the huge construction cranes poking into the drizzling sky. Temporary wire fences were everywhere and most level surfaces were filled with construction trailers, puddles, and piles of dirt. Streets and pathways end abruptly into orange barriers or concrete walls.

The former industrial site on London's East End was a total mess--nothing like the cozy Olympic Villages I saw on TV during past games. Yet for all of its unfinished glory, the only noticeable human activity came from a pub called The Cow that overlooked the puffy prow of the water polo venue. Patrons spilled out onto the patio in front of the building and onto the gallery of the massive shopping mall that forms the center of the Olympic Park.

Still, it turned out I'd made a mistake that's not unusual for project managers and leaders at all levels: passing judgment on the status of a project based on a low-level, up-close perspective.

I later learned that the major venues were finished right on schedule nearly a year ago--a perspective afforded by taking the elevator to the top of the tall parking garage at the back of the shopping mall. From that height, I could see down into the impressive 80,000-seat Olympic Stadium that crowns the site. Right next to the stadium was the swooping, gull-winged Aquatics Centre, a brilliantly designed facility that will reduce greatly in size after the Olympics when the wings are removed for a practical,long-use facility. Across the site was the Basketball Arena, purported to be Europe's largest temporary building, but looking to me like a puffy box spring waiting for a suitable mattress.

On my way back down from the parking garage roof, I accidentally pushed the wrong elevator button and the doors opened to reveal an entire floor of the parking garage packed with hundreds of brand-new BMWs, each one sporting the official Olympics paint job and numbered--waiting silently to be called into its pre-planned assignment. It was an impressive, unplanned peek behind the scenes that made clear why there wasn't a flurry of activity outside.

London is ready. No matter what it looks like close up, this massive project involving thousands of people, hundreds of groups, and billions of pounds, will be ready when they light the flame on 27 July .

As for me, the experience offered a nice refresher course on a few easily overlooked laws of leadership:

1 Take the high view. When you're deep into a project, make time periodically to step away from the nuts and bolts of it. A view from a higher altitude offers a clearer picture of overall progress and remaining challenges. What looks like chaos on the ground can turn out to be a well-planned schematic when you got enough distance to view it properly.

2 Get multiple angles. At work, as well as in London, there's more to a project than you can see from a single angle. Even going up onto the roof of a building didn't tell me the full story of what's happening. It's also important to look from lower and middle levels as well, as I did by stumbling into the garage full of BMWs.

3 Expect last minute surprises. When we get a fuller view and become convinced that things are going smoothly, we still shouldn't relax too much as a leader. Because no matter how many angles you get, you still can't see everything. With the opening ceremonies just a couple weeks away, for example, Olympics officials recently decided to close down a portion of the M4, the main road from Heathrow Airport to central London. Engineers discovered cracks in an elevated part of the motorway and closed it for at least three days to make repairs. But they had the resources reserved to make it happen.

I, for one, will have a totally different appreciation for the Games this year as I watch them from my house. I would love to be sitting in the Olympic Stadium when the athletes march onto the track. But sitting on a stool at The Cow wouldn't be bad either.

Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user USMC]

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1 Comments

  • Jonathan V

    Thanks for the "man on the street" perspective and lessons, rather than the screeching "chidken littles" of the news media.