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How to develop KPIs that deliver results: a lesson from Team GB

Impact measurement and evaluation 06th March 2019

Photo by Calum Lewis on Unsplash

James Hairsine was the strength and conditioning coach for the Team GB who soared to glory in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games – with the team taking home an impressive 27 golds for Great Britain. 

James recently met with us, to talk Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and performance measurement excellence in Team GB. We take a look at some highlights from this exclusive interview, and how James’ approach with Team GB can be applied in an organisation. 

In sport, the goal you are working towards – for example at the Olympics – can be some time off. How do you sustain focus and momentum for what you are pursuing? 

We work in four year cycles. The end goal and measure of success is how many medals we gained at the Olympics. But to sustain focus and momentum, we break it down – asking key questions around, ‘how will we get seeded?’, which leads on to ‘how do we perform well at the Euros?’ then ‘how do we perform well at the Worlds?’ and then ‘how are we going to get success from the Olympics?’. Ultimately, we must be performing week in, week out for GB domestic and international competitions. This keeps morale and focus up, because every time you step out, you know it’s one step closer to the Olympic games.

To sustain focus on your end goal, identify lead indicators (not just lag).

For example, in sprint cycling, the lag measure for Jason Kenny was 3 gold medals. But his lead measures during the 4-years leading up to the Olympics would be (for example) his watt output (power) and his one lap speed. If the lead measure is indicating that Kenny could consistently produce the power and speed needed to overcome any disadvantage (having to go around the outside or chase down a surprise move) then it is a good indicator that he will achieve his lag measure i.e. winning gold.

In the context of business, lead measures can be found all the way along an organisations value chain, but some simple examples include the “Number of Enquiries” (from people who match the profile of our existing customers) or the “Footfall” within a store for a retailer.  Lead indicators link directly into our specific strategy hypothesis and they focus the organisations attention on what’s working or not working as we execute on that strategy.

Lead indicators aren’t the same as forecasting or extrapolating. We’re not using historic data about a measure to predict how that same measure might behave in the future…a lead indicator is a measure that suggests how another measure, the lag measure, might behave in the future.


So many leaders use after-the event measures (lag measures – like medals) as the way they track their performance. The challenge is that by then it is too late. Think about the lead indicators that show the direction of travel for performance. These provide the best feedback for an overall improvement in underlying performance.

You are one part of a wider team. How do you get team alignment to ensure everyone works together and is aligned to achieving the same performance goals?

The whole team are aware of what it takes to win, and that’s our framework for achieving Olympic success. This has very clear parameters of what we all need to achieve and work towards in our respective disciplines.

The other thing is how we make those parameters and goals real and tangible. We do this by keeping communication levels high, and following that up with individual athlete planning meetings where we compare that athlete to our ideal profile. From that, different disciplines and different fitness practitioners can contribute, so the process achieves what is required for that individual.

Research shows that proactively aligning and focusing the organisation on any initiative is more likely to drive momentum.

As leaders, we often assume that leadership buy-in and then company alignment via a strong communication strategy is enough to embed new ways of working, but invariably we’ve found this isn’t enough. There are various ways to overcome this, but a good starting point is to use a well evidenced methodology such as PuMP (founded by Stacey Barr) so a strategy is explored by teams and meaningful measures are developed. When done well, this helps align people on what the step change in performance is and how to recognise when it is achieved. It also creates a feedback loop so you can quickly assess where strategies are progressing and where a bigger shift is still needed.

Have you got an example of where you and your team were ‘stuck’ in shifting performance and what you did to overcome it? 

An example that springs to mind is one of our Olympic Boxers who wasn’t responding to certain training stimulus. We weren’t getting the results we were expecting, 6 months out from the Olympics.

In response, we changed our approach entirely – focusing on his ‘super strengths’. This was a positive response, which the athlete responded well to. This enabled us to get the results we needed, and it obviously worked as he was successful at Rio!

The key was taking a step back from the situation, removing emotion from the equation and assessing the actual performance problem and its causes before designing a solution.

Here are 3 ways to help assess performance and recognise if there are problems associated to it:

  1. Beware of the average! Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) or measures that show an average of data can hide true underlying performance problems or success. To address this, you need to understand what is the underlying performance, and for that quantifiable numbers that show a performance trend overtime are needed.
  2. Think systemically about performance. Where is the KPI or measure that shows performance across a process? Don’t assume that performance stagnation is occurring in one place, check what the true cause is and where in the lifecycle it might link to.
  3. Honestly evaluate. Take the time to honestly review your strengths and weaknesses in implementing the most important performance drivers of the long-term growth strategy. Most leaders and teams we meet either perceive their performance and progression more positively or negatively than the reality they face and what they need to address. It can be hard to identify aspects that are barriers if they are hidden within divisions or have existed for a long time i.e. have become the norm. Run an independent anonymous diagnostic which gives a clearer picture of what was stopping the shift in the underlying performance.
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