Ambition, Innovation and Resilience

This year's Paralympics are a testament to the fact that some people are able to deal with their disability in a truly incredible way. But what lessons can the business world learn from their sporting success?

1. See constraint as an opportunity to increase not decrease the scale of your ambition

Lauren Steadman won a silver medal, competing at the Rio Paralympics in the women’s PT 4 triathlon. She was born without her lower right arm. This is what she says about her disability: “If you offered me an arm now, a fully functional, working arm, I wouldn’t take it. I can literally do everything without an arm, so why would I take one?”

Another example of embracing constraint from the Paralympics arena, this time from swimming: Traditionally, blind swimmers have relied on a fairly rudimentary technique to help signal when they are approaching the end of the pool and need to execute their tumble turn: Their coach taps them on their head with a long pole as they reach the end of the lap! Samsung have worked with the Spanish Paralympic Committee to develop the Blind Cap, fitted with a vibrating sensor that alerts blind swimmers of the precise instant that they need to make the turn. Not only does this negate the constraint of blindness or partial sightedness but it positively embraces it. The swimmers are not seeking to reduce their ambition around the speed of a tumble turn dive but they are using the constraint to find a solution that will make them turn even more quickly! By taking away the need for any sight at all, one wonders whether the device might well be used by swimmers without a vision impediment?!

2. When faced by constraint look far and wide for help to embrace it

In more of less every Paralympic sport, there is an example of a competitor or team that has sought to make the most of the constraints they are faced with….. and go one step further. Edging closer to the world of business, how have the British basketball teams tried to significantly improve their on-court mobility when they are restricted by the limiting mechanics of a wheelchair? They looked beyond existing wheelchair manufacturers and turned to BMW to design the perfect basketball wheelchair. Using the same computer-aided design processes used to build F1 cars, they were able to develop a moulded foam seat from a 3D scan which enabled the players to move ‘as one’ with their chair. Ade Orogbemi, a Paralympic basketball player said: “The extra speed it gives me around the court makes it easier to defend against the best-attacking sides in the world to give us that unique advantage”.                                                          

3. Don’t underestimate the importance of a positive mindset when faced by constraint

Although there is certainly methodology in transforming constraints into opportunities, it is also essential to possess a positive mindset. Back to Laura Steadman: “Whenever people say I can’t do something, I’m like, just watch me….that attitude is what’s given me my stubbornness and resilience in sport. Some may take it the wrong way, but it’s made me the athlete I am today.” Andy Lewis, another Paralympic triathlete who won gold with almost a minute to spare had his leg amputated in the wake of a motorbike accident 16 years ago, and spent 4 months in hospital. “I explained to her (his mum) that losing my leg was not going to be my disability but my ability to achieve. No one was going to stand in my way.” The mental fortitude required at both the individual, team and corporate level will always play a defining role in your ability to embrace and leverage constraint successfully.                 

In business, the constraints of time, money, space, resource expertise etc. are likely to increase significantly during the next decade and the winners are going to be those that learn to love rather than loathe these constraints.

Mark Simmonds