Published August 2008
Learning Olympics: Development Through Competition
Since ancient Greek times, organized competition has been an engaging way to develop skills and knowledge. With the 2008 Summer Olympic Games kicking off in Beijing this month, learning leaders can take a cue from those athletic competitions to engage learners and deliver results that last.
When you ask people what the Olympic Games mean to them, you’ll hear things such as friendly competition, breaking records, being the best, striving for perfection, winning and being honored just to compete. But the Olympic spirit goes beyond just competition and record setting. It engages the body and mind in a quest to set a lofty example and elevate the human spirit.
According to the Olympic Charter, “Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.”
As learning architects look to build effective learning models and methods that deliver results and create learning that lasts, they can take a cue from the Olympic games by creating their own learning olympics. The learning olympics model of training brings with it all the good attributes associated with the real Olympics and gives people a structured forum to learn, build teams, compete, feel challenged, have fun and experience a sense of accomplishment in one training package.
Growing up, many of us enjoyed games, everything from hide-and-seek to cards to monopoly to sophisticated video and online games. Then there are sports. The focus was on enjoyment, the experience, bonding with others and, of course, winning. If important competition was involved and prizes awarded, memories of those games often are indelibly etched in our hearts and minds. Competition is deeply embedded in our way of life. Whether you call them games, activities or events, companies are benefiting by adding more of them to their mix of training methodologies.
Learning architects can incorporate the Olympic spirit into a learning olympics that, when implemented effectively, can enhance training results and lead to significant behavioral and organizational change.
Sitting in a traditional, static classroom setting observing a trainer who is using text-saturated PowerPoint slides cannot compare to the kinetic experience of a live, team-oriented challenge in which competitive, fast-paced action and learning gets the blood rushing and the neurons firing in new ways.
Even well-designed and delivered Web-based instruction cannot generate the excitement of a set of engaging, team-based activities. Learning olympics, however, is not designed to replace valuable traditional instructional methods, but to supplement them.
Learning olympics is a training platform that appeals across generations and personality styles. The Learning olympics building blocks can be applied to just about any work discipline, including sales and marketing, customer support, engineering, manufacturing, administration, leadership, quality improvement, productivity and research and development.
Design Elements of a Learning Olympics
Making events challenging and competitive is the core of any learning olympics-type event, but so is creating an engaging learning experience. Here are other guidelines and ideas on designing learning olympics:
Events and duration: The real Olympics have numerous events in which individuals and teams compete in a variety of sports activities. In an Innovation Olympics learning event, for example, six team events each lasted two hours. This was an ideal maximum time frame to experience learning and skills and keep excitement and attention at a peak.
Depending upon goals and the activity, organizers might choose to allocate 15-30 minutes or less for each event and allow teams the choice to participate in several or all events. In the Innovation Olympics, each event built on the previous event’s learning or skills development objectives, yet was flexible and independent enough to allow people to pick and choose which events to compete in.
Setting performance and learning goals: Each event should have at least one core performance goal and one core learning goal, along with subordinate ones. For example, in one part of the Innovation Olympics, teams were given a package of wooden sticks, paper clips, string and two hot-glue guns. Their performance goal was to construct the tallest free-standing structure with the materials. The core learning goal was to develop effective teamwork focused on solving a problem. Subordinate learning goals included how to generate creative ideas, have open discussions, plan quickly and take calculated risks to achieve superior results.
Team focus: The learning olympics model lends itself to team building and teamwork. While individual activities should not be excluded, many people like to collaborate in a focused group, and many organizations want to build teams that work together effectively on multidisciplinary projects.
Scoring: Like the real Olympics, every event has criteria to score the top three winners (gold, silver and bronze). The Innovation Olympics used a point system in each of the events. For example, in the Creative Change Course (see the “In Practice” on page 36), judges used a detailed scoring sheet that involved more than 15 performance-criteria measurements based upon the goals of the event.
Rewards: Television sports journalist Jim McKay popularized the phrase “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” to describe the range of feelings that come from the end of a competition. In learning olympics, hype the thrill of victory, but eliminate the agony of defeat for teams that tried but missed by giving out a variety of awards.
Awards can recognize top-scoring teams, as well as the best risk-taking team, the most creative team or offbeat rewards, such as awards for the group that overanalyzed or overplanned but under-implemented or the group that had the most fun working together. There are no losers in a learning olympics.
Rewards might consist of, for example, $100 to each winning team member, gift cards to restaurants or retail stores, engraved trophies or plaques and even silly but meaningful awards such as stuffed animals that symbolize a specific desired work trait.
Recording and reliving the event: Photograph and videotape the team events and then edit the photos into creative slide shows and video clips that portray a fun and interesting story. Use customized graphics, cartoons or illustrations to deliver key messages that reinforce what participants learned.
Burn the slides and video to DVDs to give to each team member. Reliving the experience is a strong reinforcement tool. People often take pride in showing the DVD contents to co-workers, family and friends.
Fast paced and exciting: Excitement is created when participants have a deadline to meet and are challenged with constant action. Whenever possible, design some physical activity into the event, whereby participants are actively doing something, rather than passively listening or observing.
To elevate the level of excitement for participants, consider streaming the events live over the Web for others in the organization or develop a video podcast afterward. Think of other ways to raise the adrenaline level of the participants.
Side games: If you have several learning olympics events and a large group that is shuttling between activities (and have extra scheduled time in between to ensure continuity), set up small arcades of fun games to keep people involved before they enter the next event.
For example, you could have several mini-basketball games, in which people try to pitch a softball-size basketball inside the net to illustrate targeting goals.
For a sales olympics, you could give people dart guns to shoot the “competitor,” in which participants score a hit when they strike the target. The larger the group, the greater the potential and need for fun side games and prizes to keep excitement flowing.
Presentation and handouts: While a learning olympics event by itself should create intrinsic learning and skills development, consider amplifying the results by having a brief 15-minute to three-hour concentrated training presentation before starting the event to give people the context to make the activity meaningful to their development. In addition, give out a reference booklet, checklists or other valuable handouts and materials that give helpful information to support the goals of the event.
Scalability: Depending upon the design of a specific learning olympics event, make it scalable for groups of all sizes. For example, three Innovation Olympics events can accommodate thousands of people, while the other three require abundant resources to facilitate groups exceeding 100 participants. It’s not always feasible because of resource constraints, such as facilitators needed, rooms, materials, time or budget. Look for ways to stretch resources to make the events as scalable as possible.
Fun and creative: The core of any learning olympics is the enjoyment and entertainment it brings. When people play and have fun within structured learning, the results, including comprehension and retention, can be superior to traditional training methods. From the beginning, tell people to let loose and have fun, but also engineer the fun factor into learning by using creative ways to get people relaxed, uninhibited and playful.
For Innovation Olympic events, we used lively background music to keep energy high, played comedy-oriented audio and projected video clips such as those in “America’s Funniest Home Videos” at appropriate times to get people laughing. Consider embedding magicians, comedians and other performers as event co-facilitators, so they can use their skills to reinforce key learning points while adding the critical entertainment factor.
Using a series of ongoing learning olympics in your organization can be an excellent way to train, motivate and energize employees. But first, target the groups that would most enjoy and benefit from this type of training, then start small with one event. Let the games begin!