The mechanics of scoring: Olympics style

The mechanics of scoring

Much has been written on the parallels between sporting and commercial performance – winning, beating the competition, achieving above all odds, performing to your best. But what lessons can we learn from how the Olympic sports are each judged and scored – can that help us to improve the way we measure commercial success and performance? And in particular, get a more realistic view on how we are performing? So, what can KPIs and business dashboards learn from how Max Whitlock, Laura Trott and Mo Farah have been measured?

The real problem is that most sports in the non-Olympic world work on a simple tournament basis, where Team A plays Team B, and the winner goes into the next round. Simple. In the Olympics however, many events have multiple individuals all competing at the same time to win either Gold, Silver or Bronze. Scoring becomes more complex therefore.

The simplest way to measure success is based on one of the following:

  • Minimum: the fastest or fewest. So the quickest time (eg 100m, most swimming events), or the fewest strokes (Golf). Possibly the simplest measure of all, everyone understands it – the fastest time in the world. For the business world, the fewer the complaints, the better; or the quicker the Average Answer time, or time-to-conversion, the better.
  • Maximum: the longest or highest e.g. long jump distance, high jump height, or weight lifted. The salesman with the highest number of sales YTD, or the month with the highest sales volume.
  • Totals (or Sums): adding up all the scores across all disciplines in the Heptathlon, for example; or adding up team scores in Gymnastics. Easy to calculate, and easy to understand. Business relevance could be total sales to date, a simple measure of commercial success in the current year

Interestingly, very few Olympics disciplines use averages, either as means or medians; probably because we find them too difficult to measure. And as for percentages, which people can often really struggle with, they barely get a mention.

But there are further levels of sophistication added.  Remember the old days of marks out of 10, and the perfect scores of 10. They are now long gone, and the following complexities are added:

  • Weighting: the more difficult the routine, the greater the marks that are given. So both Gymnastics and Diving score according to levels of Difficulty, and scores are up-weighted or down-weighted accordingly. In business, this would be a method for incentivising behaviours you want to see, or don’t want to see.
  • Trimming: the Synchronised Diving scores remove the two lowest scores, and the two highest scores, and base the final score on the ones in the middle. Many commercial analogies here, reflecting the many outliers you can get in data – so in fundraising, for example, to get the average donation amount, we would remove the top 5% and the bottom 5% to trim off the particularly high or low values, to get something that is more truly representative.
  • Penalties/violations: hit something, knock something over, step outside the area, and you could lose points in Equestrian, Canoeing, Floor Gymnastics and Trampolining. Receive a complaint, or get an NPS score below a certain level, and remuneration could be reduced. In other words, score upwards for positive performance, but score downwards where there is evidence of bad behaviours.
  • Ranking: rather than base the score on time or distance, base it on ranking. So first ranked gets a score of 1, second ranked gets a score of 2 etc.; as used in Cycling’s Omnium event. This flattens out excesses, so if the winner of that event performed hugely better than the second placed, they would still only receive a slightly better score. This can be used in business performance where certain salesmen may be operating in particularly favourable conditions or markets; so it levels the playing field.
  • Bonuses: the opposite of penalties and violations – so in the Omnium, you get bonus points at specific points in the race if you lap the competition. A clear way of incentivising the positive performances you want your business to do.

And then there are the periods or timeframes across which success is measured:

  • Personal Best PB: the athlete’s best performance ever – clear analogies with measuring best ever sales for each saleman, or best ever sales by division
  • Time-based Personal Best: so Jessica Ennis-Hill has a PPPB, her Post-Pregnancy Personal Best. Best ever performance within a certain timeframe – highest monthly sales YTD
  • World Record WR: best ever performance. Highest sales in a month. Ever. Maximum supporters recruited in any month. Ever.
  • Olympic Record OR: as World Record, but related to a specific event or location.

What was nice to see the other night, was that the BBC were also using forecasting to assess likely outcomes. So after 5 events in the Women’s Heptathlon, they forecast what the final scores would be if each of the top 5 placed athletes got their PBs in their last 2 events. Sadly the outcome wasn’t what Team GB, or Britain as a whole, was hoping for, but this is possibly the most important aspect to any commercial dashboard – based on where we currently are, and what we think we can do in the remainder of the FY, where do we think our position will be? Plotting current performance against target, taking a view on where sales or donations will be, and then deciding what actions we need to take, is a key component of business planning.

And anyway how do we judge success? As I write this, we’ve just stormed ahead of China in the medals table, into second position. But only on the basis of the Gold medals we currently have, not the total medal tally. And yet Team GB measure success in terms of total medals – their target is 48 medals, irrespective of colour. And that target was set as one more than our tally in Beijing (London 2012 was ignored due to the ‘home’ effect) – so nothing more than an improvement on what we’ve done before.

So performance and success is not clear-cut. How we judge it is very much dependent on how we measure it, and there are many many different ways of doing that. Get the measurement right, and the commercial success will follow.