Book of the week

18th February 2000 at 00:00
PEAK PERFORMANCE:business lessons from the world's top sports organisations. By Clive Gilson, Mike Pratt, Kevin Roberts and Ed Weymes. HarperCollins, pound;19.99.

There was a time when a nascent sport psychology turned to the outside world - and to business in particular - to learn lessons about goal-setting, motivation and performance analysis.

Today, the tables are turning and sport (often a big business in itself) is being held up as a role model. What lies behind a team's ability to stay at the top, how does an organisation react when its particular Everest has been climbed, and how do individuals work best within top-performing organisations? And what can lesser mortals in smaller organisations (such as schools) learn from them?

These are some of the questions tackled though a series of case studies in Peak Performance, compiled by four New Zealand academics. They interviewed members of sports organisations from Bayern Munich to the Williams Formula 1 Team, from the New Zealand All Blacks to the San Francisco 49ers. The results, largely anecdotal but interesting nonetheless, are chiefly distilled into a chapter on peak performance organisation theory (PPO). There is also a chapter discussing how the theory can be put into practice, using Procter and Gamble as an example.

The authors' openness is refreshing. They are starstruck when meeting top sports people, clearly enjoy the "access all area" privileges they are granted within certain organisations and are happy to see their preconceptions overturned.

As a tool for the rest of us, the book is probably of limited value. What we are told at every turn is that PPOs frequently depen upon peak performers: single-minded, passionate and highly skilled individuals. The likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Michael Jordan and Frank Williams are often able to drag organisations along with them - or the organisation is built around them in the first place.

In other situations (and in the absence of charisma) we do see certain similarities between PPOs. There is often a "greatest imaginable challenge" driving an organisation forward, along with an "inspirational dream", a goal that supersedes winning a championship. When these rather abstract ideas become real - when team members can visualise a goal - the first steps to achieving peak performance have been taken. But there is a lot more to it than this, as everything ultimately depends on the individual's ability to contribute to the process.

It would be easy, at this point, to say that educational organisations are simply unable to achieve anything approaching peak performance. Resourcing, bureaucracy, incompetence - everything gets in the way of optimum achievement. Maybe this is because education is a service, not a sport or business. Yet where else, other than in educating young people, can there be such great challenges and inspirational dreams?

This book sits on the fence. You can allow yourself to be inspired, to believe in the possibility of ultimate success, or you can be exhausted at the very prospect of consistent peak performance, a seemingly unachievable state reserved only for the sporting field and not for the place which most of us normally inhabit, the real world. But whichever way you fall, Peak Performance will provide food for thought.

Graham Hart

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