The Olympics, marginal gains and your pension deficit

How did Team GB go from post-colonial also-rans to global sporting superpower?

That's simple – focused investment in professional coaches, support staff and bleeding-edge technology and the aggregation of marginal gains. There must be some lessons here for the pensions industry?

I'm old enough to remember when British sporting success was endearingly rare.

Think back to Atlanta 1996 – the British team wins a solitary gold medal. 36th in the medal table, this was Britain's lowest-ever ranking.

Fast forward a mere five Olympic cycles and Team GB wins 27 gold medals – the largest haul since 1908 – and occupies second place in the medals table between the United States and China.

What went so right? In a word: investment. Lottery funds channeled into Olympic sport have grown from £60m before the Sydney Games to £280m in the Rio Olympic cycle.

However, I think the more important point is this – success has not resulted simply from throwing money at the problem. UK Sport has focused investment on those sports that have delivered success.

This "no compromise approach" has seen British Cycling's budget steadily increase, while funding to other sports has been cut.

And success in the velodrome has been phenomenal.

Other nations may wonder how this pre-eminence was achieved in such a short time, but to my uninitiated eye the answer is simple.

All that lottery money was spent in a focused and highly intelligent way.

Having identified the athletes with the potential to succeed, the team recruited the very best coaches, dieticians and psychologists from across the world.

Athletes who did not perform were dropped, often brutally – the mentality spoke volumes: medals or nothing.

And then, of course, there is the technology.

Chris Boardman's "secret squirrels" wrung every ounce and aerodynamic advantage out of each component of bike and rider. From the obvious wheels, helmets and skin suits, to every bolt, nut and even the riders' socks.

The attention to detail was pathological and I believe this culture of continual innovation and improvement, or "aggregation of marginal gains", was the facet most difficult for other teams to emulate.

In contrast, the broader lessons are universal, and eminently applicable to pensions:

Appoint the best "coaches" – in our world this means the right professional trustees, for whom pension scheme governance is a full-time, deliberate career choice, and advisers who are pragmatic and outcome focused.

Whatever the challenges your scheme is facing, chances are the professionals have been through it before and can share their knowledge and experience.

Establish a framework for success and then aggregate marginal gains – this entails building governance structures that are comprehensive in their scope, but evolve over time.

Excellent governance spans a very wide range of pensions disciplines, and a solid platform is an essential basis for continual improvement in each area.

Pay attention to detail: look beyond investment risk and consider liability and operational risk, for example.

Demand medals or nothing – Okay, perhaps this is too literal an analogy. But it is crucial to set objectives for your scheme, form a strategy, and measure success over time.

If you do not know where your scheme is heading, then how can you navigate there? Clarity and accountability will also allow you to manage your advisers better and improve relations between trustees and employers.

Cry havoc and let slip the secret squirrels? Technology has an increasingly important role to play in pensions, from asset liability modelling to member engagement.

And finally? Choose cycling, not basketball. That is to say, invest time and resources in areas that will have the most positive outcome on funding or member outcomes.

Focus on what can be achieved – many trustees obsess over investment returns, but ignore costs, for example. You know which areas are most important for your scheme. And if not, and Sir Dave Brailsford is busy, we'd be happy to help.

This blog first appeared in Pension Funds Insider. To continue reading, please click here.

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