The Winning Lifecycle

My prediction: next winter olympics, the US will place 9th in the overall medal rankings. Why do I say this? Because a chart that appeared in today’s San Francisco Chronicle shows a strong pattern. I've reformatted it here with a line graph to emphasize the pattern. (Bear with me a minute for the business-related connection.)


The US rankings have gone through clear cycles where they bottom out, and then gradually come back up close to the top again. The cycle from 1968 to 1984 covers 5 winter games, and it looks like we are currently at the high point of the current cycle, going from 1988 to 2006 (18 years and 6 games). (There are more games in this second cycle, as the games occurred in both ‘92 and ’94 in order to allow the winter and summer olympics to alternate 4 year periods.)

This would indicate that we are due for a “correction” as they say in stock market terms. I wasn’t able to find data going further back, but if anyone knows of any, do send it along as it will be interesting to see if this goes back further than 40 years.

What causes such dramatic drops off the cliffs? I’m no expert on this, but can speculate that one of the causes might be hubris (something the US is suffering from in multiple areas, at the moment...). The US men’s ski team came into these games as the self-proclaimed “best in the world”, and has publicly imploded. The men’s speedskating team also has not done nearly as well as expected. One can’t help wondering if, after a period of years, the sense of urgency gets lost and that, independently but in unison, all the various training programs for the different sports start to rest on the laurels a bit, even if subconsciously, and things go into autopilot.

At the risk of belaboring the sports/business analogy that I’m using with the wicked problems posts (since those originated with a conference who’s theme was work and play), companies do seem to go through similar cycles. Motorola’s cellphone business had been in the doldrums for so long that people had lost count, but thanks to some intuitive bets they have had turn-around success with the RAZR. They are parlaying this into a series of interesting designs with the PEBL and the SLVR (how long ‘til we get tired of these naming conceits?), and though they ”did a Bode” with the ROCKR they seem to be effectively putting that behind them.

It’s too early to tell when this streak will come to an end, but I would certainly caution Motorola against allowing recent success to lull themselves into complacency. (From what little I know of Moto’s corporate culture from reading articles, this is a tendancy that they have, which is partly how they ended up in the position they did.) Though part of me really dislikes the implications of an endless grind conjured up by Andy Grove’s statement “only the paranoid survive,” at the same time it is worth heeding -- especially when you are successful.