Do something differently
The obvious answer – and one which many gave me at the time – was to keep doing what I did and all will be sweet and golden. The problem was that, if I’d taken that route, I would have got the same times that I had just achieved. And as competitors continued improving, those would become times which might not have even made the final – never mind topped the podium four years later.
Keep making changes
So my advice is to change – not by a bit or a margin, but change everything. This means you have to put every element of your work under analysis, and put everything you do to the test. Will it make me swim faster? If it won’t, why am I doing it? Question why you follow certain routines, and your relationships with colleagues. Ask why you approach tasks in a particular way. Could you improve accuracy? What about speed? Do you make the most of the people you work with?
And don’t just apply this test on your good days. Crucially, I applied it on those cold, dark January mornings when I was training at 5.30am and it felt like nothing was working. That’s when change, and an unflinching commitment to constantly improving yourself, really matters.
Keep applying it
I took the same approach when I led the 8,000 full-time, 70,000 volunteer and 100,000 contractor team who planned and delivered the 2012 London Paralympic Games. Prior to London, the Games had, at best, achieved 40 per cent ticket sales, they hadn’t attracted the interest of the Olympic sponsors, and they hadn’t driven global broadcast deals.
We could have chosen to move the Games on gradually – steady and safe. But we chose not to. We were determined to bring about radical change, to create a new Paralympic paradigm. The operational information was important, of course. But the essence of success was rooted in the vision: what were we aiming to achieve? And then, how could we go beyond that? Whether you’re working on a big, long-term project, or a routine task, I believe these questions are worth returning to.
Go radically different
A key part of our mission was to run the Paralympics as a challenger brand, the Olympic Games’s cheeky younger brother. This was our radical change, and it ran through every element of our approach. Perhaps one of the best executions was the ad we made with our broadcast partner Channel 4 following the close of the London Olympics. It showed paralympic athletes in the tunnel of the stadium with the message “Thanks for the warm up!”. It was cheeky and cool – the challenger coming of age.
And the real magic of the Games? They were a sell out – 400,000 more tickets were sold over and above the 2.4m made available through stretching our teams to deliver new venue capacities. That was nearly half a million people having the new opportunity to experience Paralympic sport in the golden summer of 2012. Remind yourself of what you’ve done well. It’ll mean you carry the right lessons forward – and we all deserve a pat on the back when something has exceeded expectations.
Why were we successful?
All of this happened because we created a vision, we set a mission, and we built a team that believed it. Then, we planned and delivered it. And I don’t think this message need be any different for someone running their own business, a person working in a large corporate, or someone leading a team of 200 in a medium-sized firm. Find your inspiration, test yourself every day, and don’t be afraid to push beyond the best.