Business Lessons from Sochi

Millions of people around the world are spending a good chunk of February with their eyes glued to their television screens, watching the 2014 Winter Olympics. Amazing feats of athleticism, surprising defeats, come-from-behind victories—they’re all on display this week and next in Sochi, a Russian Federation city on the Black Sea coast.

The Olympic games combine competition and performance. They also include a good dose of instruction, too. Competitors learn new techniques and strategies from each other, for example, and sports fans learn about the different events and their participants. But educational opportunities also abound for people who have no connection whatsoever to sports: business leaders.

Putting together an international event on the scale of the Olympic Games requires a lot of planning. Sometimes the planning yields successful results … and sometimes it doesn’t. The Sochi games in particular offer several important lessons useful to companies and business leaders alike.

For example, remember the opening ceremony? This is always the host country’s big moment in the spotlight—a chance for it to show off to the rest of the world. Months (years, even!) of planning go into this spectacle, with millions of dollars and thousands of people involved in it. Ideally, careful planning leads to a flawless execution. But that wasn’t that case during the opening ceremony at Sochi, where one of five illuminated snowflakes failed to transform into an Olympic ring. So instead of the iconic five Olympic rings, viewers around the world saw four rings and as asterisk. But in spite of this mishap, the ceremony continued.

The lesson: No matter how hard you plan, you will eventually mess up. The most important lesson for a business owner is to manage the mishap, adjust accordingly, and keep moving forward.

And how about the yogurt fiasco? Chobani, a sponsor of the U.S. Olympic team, planned to send 5,000 containers of its yogurt to U.S. athletes in Sochi. Because Russian customs laws require certain certificates for dairy imports (which Chobani failed to acquire), however, the yogurt shipment was stuck in a New Jersey warehouse for several days, with the company eventually deciding to stop trying to send it to Russia and instead to donate it to food banks in the NYC area. Team USA seems to be managing just fine without its beloved yogurt, though, and is winning medals left and right.

The lesson: Sometimes surprises come up, and often conditions aren’t optimal. Business owners who want to outpace the competition know that they can’t let small bumps derail their progress. They know how to adapt to changes and unforeseen obstacles—and press on.

And finally, let’s talk about the $50 billion price tag for these games. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, clearly intends for the Sochi games to be one of the legacies of his administration—and he’s spared no expense on this event. Unfortunately, the site he’s chosen isn’t exactly known as a winter sports destination: it’s a subtropical beach town on the Black Sea. So putting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi is a bit like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. With enough hammering, Putin however, is making the peg fit. But at what cost? Is it worth all the money and effort to stage winter sports competitions in a place that’s currently enjoying 63-degree temperatures?

The Sochi games are possible only because exorbitant amounts of money have been involved (in fact, these are the most expensive Olympic games ever), and history shows that Olympic host venues almost never recoup their costs. So in the long run, although this event may win glory for the Russian Federation (and Putin), it will almost certainly have negative economic repercussions for that nation.

The lesson: It’s one thing to challenge convention. It’s quite another to defy reality.

Savvy business owners understand the importance of planning for the long term, weighing the pros and cons of all business decisions, and working the strengths of their organizations.


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