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The Winter Olympic Games of 2010 are over. The last few days were dramatic for the host nation, Canada. The flurry of gold medals, the unfortunate silver in women’s curling (Cheryl Bernard was a breath away from the gold), and, of course, the amazing win in the hockey final against the USA… what a performance!

In four years, the best athletes of the world will reconvene in Sochi, Russia, to compete, to win, to rejoice, to, alas, lose, and to persevere.

Speaking of Russia, it finished 11th in the medal tally, an unusually low placement. The heads of sport apparatchiks are starting to roll: President Medvedev has publically called for those in charge of the national team to “make the courageous decision and hand in their notice,” lest “we will help them.”  World class performance and leadership is seen as a high strategic priority there, and far be it from me to judge whether this is right or wrong.

There is a point in my talking about the Games and the Russians, so read on.

Let’s look at this holistically. Here is what we have going for Russia:

–         World class performance in sports is a strategic priority.

–         Performance in Vancouver was subpar.

–         Host of the next Winter Games; it would be embarrassing to do poorly

–         The poor performance has been attributed by many experts to the gradual disappearance of the “Soviet school.” As older coaches retire with no one hand over to, training methods become lost.

–         The funding is not an issue as inordinate amounts of money is invested in amateur sports. Consider, for instance, the size of the bonus the Russian Olympic Committee had established, compared to other countries.

Canada   $20,000 $15,000 $10,000
USA   $20,000 $15,000 $10,000
Russian Federation $135,000 $82,000 $54,000

The assessment of experts is that while there is a significant amount of investment, there is no systematic approach to it.

What does it remind you of? Isn’t it something we see so often in the corporate world: former glory, riding the wave of the past accomplishments for as long as it can carry you, then recognizing that there is a problem and throwing money at without any system, in a piecemeal fashion?

This won’t do, not for a corporation, nor for a country aspiring to be a world leader in sports. The right place to start is to establish the objective clearly. I will continue with the Russian example to illustrate that.

Ostensibly, there are two possible distinct goals here for Russia:

  1. To do well in Sochi in 2014; and
  2. To become a world leader in winter sports.

Why are these goals separate? The first one is specific and has a well-defined timeline. It is a short term goal akin to making an annual projection or delivering a new product on time. Once it is achieved, there isn’t necessarily a lot of residual value left.

It can be achieved by assembling a star “project team” of subject matter experts to find the talent, put it through the state-of-the-art prep program and selection, whittle the team down to the desired size and do incredibly well in Sochi. Once done, you will have a bunch of great athletes, a bucketful of medals and perhaps a few lessons learned, but I no lasting effect. There won’t be a methodology, a succession of coaches, a sustainable selection “funnel”.

The second goal is long-term. To become a leader in something (sports, innovation, design, service, growth, efficiency, productivity, etc)  you need to build a “school”  to replace the vanishing legacy. You need to create a system, which, in this case, should consist of:

–         Judicial, systematic investment within well established guidelines.

–         Sponsorship at the top level, to maintain focus and momentum.

–         Right people – exceptional coaches, scientists, athletes, technical support, and administration

–         The system of incentives to reward the desired behavior,

–         The culture of amateur sport participation – just look at Australia – to allow the talent to realize and to grow the pool of potential star athletes

–         Facilities to enable this participation with low cost of entry

–         Heuristics and methods (which should with time become self-correcting algorithms) of identifying and selecting talent, preparation and training,  nutrition, and so on.

–         Knowledge retention and amelioration.

This will take time, perhaps 8-10 years to see the results, but these will be long-lasting, repeatable, sustainable results. Perhaps, Russia should pursue both objectives at the same time, with the full understanding of the expectations attendant to each goal.

This example is a terrific illustration to a common issue in the corporate world. Too often, organizations are so anxious to see a change that they embark on it in earnest without first establishing their goals clearly and determining the best way to address them. These issues pop up all over the organizational map: investments that generate now ROI, failure to define a clear strategic direction, misguided projects, fixing things that don’t need fixing, lost time, lost productivity, “feel good” initiatives that have no value… If only the decision makers took the time to think it through.

Are the Russians coming? I don’t know, but they better get their act together if they want to be a force to be reckoned with.

Last week, life offered me a wonderful lesson in organizational design, which I am going to share.

I saw how a notary in a small Russian town organizes her work. In Russia, notaries do not merely administer oaths and notarize documents. They are trained legal professionals who often get involved in real estate and property matters, services that, while being routine and mostly straight-forward, make the notary’s work very valuable indeed.

Let me describe how this particular notary runs her business.

The reception is teeming with people. There is a queue, but unless you poke your head into the office where the notary’s three helpers reside, you probably won’t get served. The helpers concern themselves with typing, copying, fetching stuff and other like light duties. They don’t do any other work and aren’t allowed to say much.

The notary, a rotund woman in her 60’s with a lot of presence, does almost all the work. She tells the helpers what to type and what to copy, evaluates documents, proofreads, takes payments, writes receipts and so on. While serving several customers at once, she also takes and makes phone calls on matters not necessarily related to the immediate work. There is a lot of face time with the customer but this is clearly where the bottleneck is.

It takes forever (3 hours, in my estimation) to get the first client served. The process is inefficient, confusing and taxing on everyone involved.

Now imagine that you are charged with transforming this small business. What would you do?

If your mind works along the process lines, you will probably think about better queue management, prescreening of applications by a member of staff (a law student would do fine job), extensive templating, delegation of all admin duties, and other measures positioned to alleviate the existing bottleneck.

I am certain that these and other like steps will improve the throughput, but is this what the notary will want? Is this in her best interest?

You see, there are other factors involved here besides the operational efficiency:

  •  The onerous process makes the clients believe that the work is more complex and therefor more valuable than it realy is. A client develops a sense of gratitude and indebtedness.
  • To empower someone to make decisions on her behalf (prescreening), the notary will lose a significant portion of her expert power.
  • The extensive face time with the client allows the notary to evaluate the usefulness of the client, which is so much more valuable than the fee received for her services. What connections does this person have? What services can be obtained from him or her? In the society where one’s success is contingent on who you know and given that she operates in a small town, this is worth a lot to her.
  • Paperwork and receivables are not always transparent, which means that it would be highly undesirable to delegate the seemingly menial cash and receipts duties.

Do you see what is going on here? Too often, organizational transformation is initiated with a one-sided view of the issue. It is tempting to take an engineering approach and build a beautiful process, but it just won’t work at all here. Having the broader take on the issue, understanding the culture and the environment leads to better recommendations, better decisions and better outcomes.

I don’t approve the Russian notary’s way of doing business, but I certainly thank her for the wonderful example.

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