Every four years, the world shuts down for two weeks, countries become a little friendlier, and nearly everyone talks about the same thing: the Olympics. This year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi are no exception. (And hopefully you’ve already set up your network to keep employees from streaming it all to their desktops every day.)

The Olympics can have more to do with IT than you think. In both cases, you’ve got people who’ve spent their whole lives learning to do something arcane — perhaps even geeky — in hopes of achieving fame, fortune, and personal satisfaction, all while a bunch of people observe them and comment on how badly they’re doing. This is particularly true of the Winter Olympics, which brings us such scintillating sports as curling, otherwise known as using pushbrooms to sweep the ice to encourage a rock to move; ice dancing, or ballroom dancing on ice skates; and the biathlon, bringing together two sports, skiing and shooting, that have absolutely nothing in common.

That said, the IT department can learn a lot from the Winter Olympics. So while you’re watching — and you know you will; it’s not like there’s anything else on TV for the next two weeks — note how the event and the broadcast uses these factors, and think about how you can apply them to your job.

  1. Have a personality:  With the possible exception of the 1992 Lithuanian basketball team, whose Summer Olympic dreams were funded by the Grateful Dead, the one Olympics team everyone remembers is the 1988 Jamaican bobsled team. It sounds like a joke. Bobsleds in Jamaica? Who knew? As it happened, they came in last that year, and haven’t done particularly well since then (this year, they can’t even practice yet because their luggage is delayed), but they still hold a warm spot in people’s hearts. They have no medals, but they do well in the court of public opinion because of their personality.
  2. Explain what you’re doing: Some of the best parts of the Olympics are the explainers, where sportscasters show you the difference between a double axel, a quad toe loop, and a triple Salchow, or the distinction between a frontside double-cork 1440 and a double McTwist 1260. Want to make sure people appreciate what you’re doing, particularly if it’s especially tricky or complicated? Tell them. And don’t be afraid to draw pictures.
  3. Tell inspirational stories: God knows many of us hate inspirational stories, but the networks love them, if only because it gives them something to air during the dead space while the Zamboni is cleaning the ice. So-and-so persevered through adversity — whether it was through poverty, illness, family trauma, or civil unrest — to make it here today. It’s cheesy, but it gives us an opportunity to get to know the Olympians as individuals, especially when they’re all bundled up so much you can hardly keep track of them anyway. Make sure your people are known both as a team and as individuals; it’s up to you if you want to tell the inspiring tale of how they succeeded despite the ravages of teenage acne and having to pay off their college loans.
  4. Watch out for distractions: It’s way too easy for side issues to become the narrative. The opening ceremony starts Friday, and what is everyone talking about? The lousy hotel rooms and the weird toilets. Why is everyone talking about this? Because, right now, there’s nothing else to talk about — but chances are, now that it’s become a Thing, people will be talking about it for the entire Games. This is known as “not controlling your message.”  So do what you can to avoid distractions. Don’t have the new product installation become known as “the time that everyone got food poisoning at lunch during the training session.”
  5. Pay attention to security: Finally, one of the biggest concerns of the Sochi Olympics so far is that of security, and it truly is unfortunate that we have to worry about this during the one event that is traditionally intended to bring the world together. That said, it’s a lesson for you, too: Security is paramount. In any project, include plans for security from the beginning, rather than tacking it on at the end, and test it throughout the planning process. The most successful project will be a failure if it turns out that it puts corporate data at risk or damages its integrity.

Let the Games begin.

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