The London 2012 opening programme – a masterclass in engagement

I’ve been working in the engagement and transformation business for well over a decade. Never have I seen the so-called people disciplines in such a state of disempowered crisis, cruelly at a time when they are needed the most.

But in these dark days, what an uplifting delight it was to watch Danny Boyle’s genius unfold before the world as we watched the London Olympics 2012 opening ceremony.

While boardrooms pontificate and procrastinate about measurement and meaning citing austerity as an excuse for avoiding the very action that would ironically help to kick-start recovery, Boyle and co conceived a strategy based on the yang of authenticity to counter China’s intimidating, totalitarian, resource-rich yin.

They were up against almost impossible competition. But when put to the most extreme of tests, with the eyes of the world literally upon them, they found a way to out-perform the previous games.

While governments squandered scores of months on enquiries, committees and spin to explain the economic and engagement downturn that has dominated world news since London won the bid , Boyle’s creative team quietly ignored the emasculating criticism levelled at their plans and confidently assembled a complex showcase of brand Britain which from pastoral idyll through to NHS more accurately portrayed what it is to be British than anything I believe any of us has hitherto seen.

To the many change practitioners out there who find themselves increasingly confused and frustrated by the ever-slippery engagement word, take some time out and have another look at the show. Remind yourself that like most things, engagement is essentially a simple concept. It’s more sensation than dry understanding. It’s more feeling than thinking. It’s more story than event.

In the context of an organisation, it’s how connected employees are to the entity they work for and how prepared they are to be themselves or to give more than is contracted from them. It’s the sum of the moments when the hairs rise on the back of a tingling neck or the warm feelgood glow that comes from sensing that an organisation shares the values you personally hold dear. And from the perspective of the leaders the more widespread, consistent and persistent that feeling, the more impact it’s going to have on the way those people and that organisation performs.

Of course there are lessons aplenty that business leaders can learn from the opening to 2012. The first however, is to acknowledge how much engagement really matters and to appreciate the impact it can have. The second is to take action and “make it so”.

Reflecting on THAT oh-so-important ceremony however, it’s worth remembering that:

  • the ceremony was only 1 stage on a long journey from heritage via strategy to legacy. As I wrote in Brand Engagement, don’t be fooled into believing the hype perpetuated by the event or training companies claiming that engagement is a quick, marquee-event fix. Transformation needs more than a short-story mentality from leaders, a vision and journey not an initiative.
  • As the thousands of volunteers, programme of events and interactive opportunities show, from social media through to the relay of champions, collaborative art works etc the route to engagement is the involvement of as many stakeholders as possible as often as possible. Push communication, PR and instruction all have their place. But engagement they ain’t.
  • Your true champions aren’t the marquee names, they’re the Everyman communities, the unsung names, the sum of your potential who inspire their peers with the sense of “if they can I can”. The “guard” of building workers and entire torch lighting process was a masterclass in this principle.
  • There’s nothing more powerful than authenticity. Andy Murray found this out at Wimbledon recently in a moment that transformed his relationship with the public. All the athletes role model this when they’ve given their all and it’s certainly summed up in this “unbelievable” clip of Bert le Clos, father of “beautiful” South African surprise gold medal winner Chad :-).

When planning the ceremony Boyle knew Britain couldn’t compete with the Chinese resources. So he showcased our thinkers, our planners, our builders, our carers, our artists, our singers, our lovers, our tryers , our jokers, our champions and mentors but most of all our indomitable ordinary, authentic people….and look what they achieved!

Quite possibly the last is the most important point of all. The Opening ceremony showcased British ordinariness and diversity in all its magnificent quirkiness. It couldn’t match the razzamatazz and overwhelming corporate might of the US games or the tikeish new world charm of Sydney. But spin and PR aside, it touched upon the weirdly wonderful uniqueness of what it means to come from these small emerald isles and the people who have punched above their weight in the world for such a long time.

I’m not one to gush, but like many people who were trepidatious about these games, I wish a few of the leaders of Britain’s brands would take just a lesson or two from the way Boyle devised and executed his vision of Brand Britain as showcased in the preliminary process and ceremony which gave our Olympics the adrenalin injection they needed.

We would all undoubtedly be a lot the better for it if they did.

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