It's common to compare competitive sports with business. We share metaphors all the time; teamwork, crossing the finishing line, winning the race, it's a marathon not a sprint. And business conferences are packed with athletic superstars giving motivational speeches that compare high achievement in sports with great success in business.
But the more time I've spent with Olympic athletes, the less convinced I am that the metaphor helps.
At the Olympics, only coming in first counts.
Sure there are other medals but every contender I've talked to tells me that only gold brings attention, fame, and sponsorship. We've even seen winners of silver medals like Russia's Victoria Komova weep at her failure. In business, though, coming first isn't all that counts. There are a million restaurants that didn't invent the cuisine they serve, a ton of successful engineering companies that aren't number one, thousands of systems integrators who aren't world leaders. They're doing a great job for their customers and their employees, and they're in the game.
First mover advantage is pretty important in the 100-meter dash but it's a mixed blessing in business.
Just think of MySpace, search engine AltaVista, or music site MP3.com. Who starts first determines very little in business.
At the Olympics, for one person to win means another has to lose.
In business, though, many of the greatest companies have succeeded through being outstanding partners. How did Cirque du Soleil, a group of Canadian street performers, become a world brand? By working together with hotelier MGMGrand. Had the two competed--at one point, Cirque did contemplate going into the hotel business--neither could have achieved as much.
At the Olympics, tiny margins make the difference between success and failure.
In business, margins matter, of course. But few would seriously bet the business on the razor thin margins that define Olympic success. Resilient companies can balance risk with a spectrum of products at different margins.
Few Olympic athletes have long careers.
True, this is horsewoman Mary King's sixth Olympics but most athletes are done after one or two. In business, on the other hand, success takes time, patience, and stamina. I've lost count of the number of Inc. 500 company founders I've met who laugh at what people imagine to be "overnight" success. Of course, business wins take many years.
Don't get me wrong: I think the Olympic Summer Games are tremendously entertaining. But I'd hate to build a business model on them. I think one of the hardest things to absorb in business is the notion that success happens every day; what really matters isn't a final verdict, but a trend that can go for years. Running a great company makes a marathon look like a sprint.