6 lessons from Olympic teams about designing better business


Preparing a team to compete in the Olympic Games is very different from running a company. But we can learn a lot from Olympic teams who work closely together for four years trying to achieve the ultimate goal: Winning a Gold Medal at the Olympics.

Recently, I had the honor to interview the Australian Head Swim Coach Jacco Verhaeren, who has been a big inspiration to me.  In my conversation with Verhaeren, I realized that there are many lessons that companies can learn from the focus and preparation it takes to prepare these athletic teams for world-class competition.


1. Focus on the Ultimate Goal: Who is going to break records and bring home medals?

That’s the ultimate question each Olympic Team captain asks himself. “We start our preparation 4 years in advance,” said Verhaeren. “When I was coach of gold medal winners like Pieter van den Hoogenband, Inge de Bruyn, we recruited and coached only the best swimmers whom we know can be successful at the Olympics. In these four years we work with a close team of different experts on amongst others food, fitness, mental state.”

“We’re very deliberate and methodical in how we achieve our goals. The first two years we experiment with the underlying techniques and methods, whereas the last two years we focused on how to win those medals. We never lose site of our ultimate goal: winning the gold medal. The clarity of this goal keeps us focused.”

2. Create a clear design criteria for success.  

In the Olympics, measuring success is quite easy. Did you win the medal? Did you break your personal records? Did you contribute to your country’s total count?

For many teams working on innovation efforts, the goals are too vague or high level to be a motivating force. Too often, companies do not explicitly make the goals of the team clear in ambition or in allocated time and resources.

What are the design criteria for the project to be successful? Is success about serving a new customer segment? Finding a new business model? Creating a new revenue stream? What is our allocated timeline? Four years? Throw away the KPI bullshit. Think of clear goals around learning, cooperation and specific achievements.

3. Attract the best talent to support the best performance of team, not just individual star athletes.

Do not just hire the ones who are available. Typically the best people are already working on the key projects of the company. How do you make the goal so exciting that the best talent volunteers to join your team?  Take time and think about the unusual suspects that can help support the team as a whole. Do you need IT specialists, psychologists, new hires or support staff?  

4. Have strategic conversations.

Take time to sit with your team and have discussions about your individual and collective ambitions, about your capabilities and strengths, about the way you work, and about your core values. How do you handle conflict? What allows you to do your best work? What do you do when shit hits the van? These are conversations that can be done ahead of time, not just when crisis hits.

5. Find a coach.

Any Olympic team has a coach to set the team up for success. He or she is responsible for the system of interconnect parts that support their athletes. Who is your coach? Whom can you trust? Are they able to straddle the big picture vision of the training plan, while also adapting and responding to acute needs along the way, like changing a hotel for you when the Olympic Village is a mess?

6. Set up intrinsic and holistic incentives.

A bonus here is too easy. What is the reward when people in your innovation team are successful? In what ways will they be rewarded? Will they run the new venture? Will they get shares?

What does your team journey look like for the next 4 years? Who will be on your team? What are you going to win?


By Patrick van der Pijl - Author

Patrick is CEO of Business Models Inc. and producer of the worldwide bestseller Business Model Generation. He is passionate to help entrepreneurs, leaders, rebels and corporate companies to innovate their business model and design a future strategy.