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2010 Winter Olympics – A model for handling business obstacles and failures

I was in Vancouver during the last weekend of the 2010 Winter Olympics. I have to say I was really impressed by the city’s organization, appearance, and performance quality. But most of all, I was impressed with how they handled themselves professionally and creatively to overcome shortcomings and criticism of the winter games.

Something that really stuck in my mind was how they handled the technical failure of the fourth pillar during the lighting of the Olympic torch. The cauldron was supposed to be lit by four pillars however only three pillars worked as planned leaving one of the torch bearers to stand awkwardly in position as the ceremony proceeded. A tremendous amount of time, effort and money went into planning the event and this malfunction was completely unexpected. Millions of viewers witnessed the event and critics were quick to jump on the mishap.

However, the organizers not only redeemed themselves during the closing ceremonies but they turned their failure into a success. They enacted a parody of the pillar mishap during an attempt to re-light the cauldron. They introduced a clown pretending to mock-repair the pillar with his hands. I was impressed how they used creativity to relive a bad moment and turn it into something positive. The result was a positive impact on viewers, volunteers, and organizers. Organizers of the event could easily have hidden the problem and didn’t have to “own up” to their mistake in front of millions of viewers, many of whom had forgotten the initial failure. But they chose this as an opportunity to laugh at themselves and didn’t view the mistake as something negative. Mistakes happen, things don’t always go as planned. The Olympic organizers embraced their shortcoming and turned it into something positive.

I think this is something that businesses can learn from. Organizations are continually faced with obstacles and failures as things don’t always go as planned. So here are five rules for handling these types of situations.

  1. Be honest. The first thing you have to do is to face your problem truthfully. Don’t cover up your mistakes and don’t lose focus by coming up with excuses. Sh*t happens, deal with it honestly. At the end of the day, your objective is to better your business.
  2. Be Creative. Sometimes you can better a situation by thinking outside the box. In the example above, organizers chose to take a risk with their comedic performance and it resulted in something even more memorable.
  3. Learn from your mistakes. You can’t change what happened and sometimes you don’t get a second chance. But you can learn from your failures and use that experience and knowledge to help make future ventures a success. Talk to those involved and see what went wrong, what went right and what steps need to be taken in the future.
  4. Think of your stakeholders. You have to realize that project shortcomings and failures impact your entire organization, not just you. Employees, volunteers, customers, investors and any other stakeholders involved are affected by your actions or inactions in different ways.
  5. Be Prepared. Obstacles and failures are a normal part of business so it’s important to be prepared for undesirable events. Bad things happen, so be prepared.

The parody of the Olympic torch lighting was a simple action that, in my mind, had a significant impact on viewers and volunteers. This gesture symbolized confidence, honesty, integrity and modesty. It was a moment I was proud of. Congratulations to a successful 2010 Winter Games. Go Canada Go!

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