The Olympic and Paralympic Games: Just another Shared Services

With a very successful London Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012 now behind us, I have been reflecting, with much pride, on the factors that made it such a triumph. As I have done so, the parallels to my experience when we set up P&G’s Global Business Services are uncanny.

In some sense, you could say that both the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games are Shared Services operations, albeit with a very limited life span. In the case of the Olympic Games, there are 10,000 athletes, 204 countries, 26 sports and one provider – the Host City. The Paralympics are somewhat smaller in terms of participants, though still the second largest sporting event on earth. Nonetheless, it is no lesser a Shared Services.

However, the parallels go much further than that somewhat tongue-in-cheek analogy. First, just as you have to convince the Board of Directors to embrace the concept of Shared Services, so with the Olympic bid you have to convince the International Olympic Committee to vote for your vision of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Both require an exciting vision, real tangible deliverables, a sense of a capability in the team, good financial models and an understanding of risk and its mitigation.

Unlike most Shared Services, where Value and Service Improvement are the key drivers, each Olympic bid is unique. London anchored its vision on "Inspiring Young People" and this ran through everything we did – our video presentations, the advertising material, the participation of young ambassadors, and so on. This constancy of purpose was key to winning the bid, just as a focus on value and service is key to every world-class Shared Services.

Beyond the vision, both the Olympic Games and a Shared Services implementation share one key facet: you only get one chance to get it right. Fail in the Olympic preparations and history will remember you for all the wrong reasons. Fail in an SSC start up and your company will remember you for ever, though you are unlikely to be there to see it.

The cornerstone of getting it right is planning in the greatest of detail. Neither of these events can leave the smallest thing to chance. Using all the tools in the toolbox is crucial – critical path planning, risk assessment and management, and total quality, are but some of the tools to call upon. However, tools are no more than that. Getting the right people on the team, especially at the leadership level, is critical. Skimp there and you risk failure on both these projects.

Even if you get the vision right and plan with the greatest of detail, using the best tools and great people – things will go wrong. The test of a great service organization is how it responds when that happens. Paradoxically, people will appreciate your organization more if you respond quickly and effectively to problems than if your service is always perfect. London had one of those moments when the security contractor failed to provide enough trained personnel. Fortunately LOCOG had a contingency plan and the British Military, with an unfailing sense of good humour and expertise, stepped into the breach. A potential disaster was averted and the end product was even better. The moral for everyone: always plan for the unexpected.

Most importantly, both the Olympic Games and Shared Services organizations are ultimately dependent on the people that make up the bulk of the organization. Just as your call centre operator represents the front line of your service experience, so the 70,000 volunteers ultimately set the tone of the Olympic Games. In London, those volunteers were extraordinarily well prepared and went about their duties with a capability, style, politeness and good nature that played no small part in making the Games such a success. Training your SSC staff in great service delivery is not easy, but the dividends are huge.

Both an SSC and the Olympics also have one defining moment: Day 1! For the SSC, it is the day you start up, or go live. All eyes are on you. The naysayers are praying that you will fail; your supporters are crossing everything. For the Olympics, the equivalent – albeit on a global stage – is the opening ceremony. In some cases, the Olympic moment of truth is so much harder, not just because of the global audience, but because everyone is comparing you with the previous Games. In London’s case: Beijing.

LOCOG realised, of course, that you could never out-firework Beijing. Instead, they dared to be different. Their use of some quintessentially British humour (topped off with Mr. Bean and the James Bond/Queen scene), the country’s history, and some legends of the cultural scene, made for an extraordinary spectacle. Not necessarily better then Beijing, but memorable. And that is the lesson for a Shared Services start up: Be distinctive; Be great; But most importantly: be memorable – for all the right reasons.

The success of an Olympics is also critically dependent on spectator turnout. London venues were pretty much full for all events, on all days, in a way that had never been achieved before. The right product at the right price, marketed properly, was the key. An SSC faces precisely the same issue: Make sure you deliver a world-class product at a price your user considers good value, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean lowest cost. Value and price are not one and the same thing, though some SSC leaders and many of their customers often forget that.

With the dousing of the flame, London can look back with pride at having "done it right". It may have been London’s third time of hosting, but the previous two were thrust upon the city. In 1908 the designated host city was struck by a natural disaster and London stepped into the breach. In 1948, the Games were invariably the "Austerity Games" as the world emerged from the shadows of the Second World War. On both occasions it was a case of "make do". This time London could demonstrate that it could do it well – and that can only be good for the city and the country. So it is with an SSC: do it well and both your Company and your SSC will prosper.


Mike Power is Founding President of P&G’s Global Business Services, and was Chief Operating Officer London 2012, as well as Chief Operating Officer, LOCOG (2005 – 2008).