What can we learn from the London Olympics?

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Derek Park

As a true Brit I have been gripped for the last fortnight as Team GB won gold after Olympic gold. The top moments for me; Mo Farah kicking off the last bend and on to victory in the 10,000m and 5,000m races, and Andy Murray serving a clean ace to win the singles gold. But perhaps most impressive has been the performance of the British cyclists. Is there something our industry can learn from these super athletes?

Day after day we saw a demon in red, white and blue scream to victory. Cycling has a language of its own but now we all know about the peloton, the velodrome and the keirin. Hitherto I thought ‘keirin’ indicated sponsorship by a Japanese brewery but in fact it is Japanese for ‘racing wheels’. A feature of this race is the derny, that strange little motorbike with its even stranger upright rider. Obviously a continental contraption; dual powered by motor and pedals (a concept never embraced by us Brits; remember the Sinclair C5?) and just lacking a couple of baguettes sticking out of a basket on the handlebars to complete the picture!

Secret of Success

Sir Chris Hoy and the team explained that success was the result of many things coming together, including technology, reliability, fitness and determination. But we also started to hear about ‘the Chimp’ and how it must be kept in the box. So was that the secret? Some of the competition had hinted that they smelled a rat in the GB performance but could it in fact be a monkey? Was there a bionic, genetically modified and performance enhanced primate underneath the red white and blue lycra?

But it got even more intriguing. Apparently the Chimp was in the riders' heads. Did that explain the weird shaped helmets? Wrong again. Apparently the Chimp is 'an emotional machine that we all possess'. Who says so? None other than Dr Steve Peters, resident psychiatrist with the British Cycling Team. At first I thought they had brought in a shrink from some fancy American Sports University but no… it turns out Steve is from Sheffield, another triumph for good old GB. Many of the team have spoken publically about how his unique Chimp Model has helped them improve performance. Some recommendation, not least coming from the straight talking Bradley Wiggins, a man who deserves a listen as the winner of the Tour de France and Olympic gold within the space of ten days.

What Can We Learn From The Chimp?

But it also got me thinking about our industry. My 'Never Say Never Again' report ended with

'The only way to be sure that there will not be another Piper or Macondo type incident is if people feel that at all times that they have the confidence and authority to do the right thing within their sphere of expertise. What alternative is there? We already have rules, standards, audit reports, academic papers and the rest. These count for nothing if on a remote location in the middle of the night, some hard pressed manager, engineer or technician feels under pressure to take a chance.'


Like the cyclists it is so important for us to get so many things right all of the time, especially when we encounter stressful situations. More often than not we manage this but the potential remains for somebody to do something irrational. When I wrote the article I couldn’t offer an answer but perhaps our cyclists have found it. They have learned how to get everything and everybody physically prepared but they also realise that their mental processes could let them down. This is where the Chimp comes in.

Steve Peters is not actually a sports specialist. His book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ is not about sport, it explains the workings of the human brain. Using characterisations of the main brain areas, including ‘the Chimp’, the book teaches how the mind works and, perhaps more importantly, how it can be managed.

The book opens with a question; do you sometimes behave irrationally or impulsively? The book then poses a series of further questions, some particularly relevant to business and industry, for example

How do I become more organised and successful in what I do?

How do I become a more effective leader?

And two further questions could apply to the engineer or technician who takes that chance in the middle of the night.

Why do I often act against common sense?

Why do I sometimes become irrational in my thinking?

Steve's book is an easy read and I can't do it justice in a couple of paragraphs, but it features a model of the brain with the Human, the Chimp and a Computer as its key parts. The main message is that we are all actually made up of two beings; a 'Human' who wants to behave rationally and logically and a 'Chimp' that acts on emotion. Only one of these beings is you (the Human) whilst the emotionally driven Chimp thinks independently. The book explains that when the Chimp overpowers the Human and takes control of the brain, irrational behaviour is the result. We have probably all experienced our Chimp taking over when, as a driver, we are ‘cut up’ by another motorist. The Human inside the brain doesn’t feel it personally and decides that the best thing is just to forget it, it is unimportant. However the Chimp in the brain is feels belittled, is outraged and drives hard on the tail of ‘the enemy’ (who is probably also under chimp control) to exact revenge. Why do we do that?

Your Chimp is a ‘given’ and you are not responsible for its nature, but you do have responsibility to manage it.

The third important part of the brain is the ‘Computer’ that stores information that the Chimp or the Human put into it. However there is a real difference between how the Human and the Chimp interpret that information. The Chimp interprets the information with feelings and impressions and uses emotional thinking to put things together and form a plan of action - a so called emotional plan. The Human will interpret the same information by searching for the facts and establishing the truth before putting together a logical plan.

Boxing the Chimp

The Chimp is five times more powerful than the Human and sees all information received by the brain before the Human does, so is much more likely to be in control. The main benefit for the elite athletes is in being able to banish the self-doubt that creeps in when the Chimp reacts emotionally to the big occasion. They can then replace those doubts with the logical human reasoning that comes from knowing that they are fitter, more skilful and have better kit than the opposition. This is what the cyclists mean by 'boxing the Chimp'.

Maybe the concept of a Chimp in our brain could offer some clues as to why we sometimes act irrationally in the industrial world. At Montara the entire well management regime was poor but this must have been known by those involved. They must have appreciated the risks they were running but still they did what they did. Was the Chimp in control? Another feature of the Chimp is that it ‘thinks in black and white’ and tends to see only one possibility. At Macondo a key negative pressure test was a pretty obvious ‘fail’ but it was interpreted as a ‘pass’. On a rig crammed with experts who had done this test many times before, how could this be?. The Chimp must have been on overtime.

These are just a couple of examples and there are many more, just in these two incidents. We should be aware of what might be happening in the thought processes of our people when they are under pressure. I recommend ‘The Chimp Paradox’ by Dr Steve Peters, available for well under a tenner.

So back to the Olympics; amid the euphoria we can quietly forget that, like England before, Team GB footballers fell in the dreaded penalty shoot-out. The sports press is suggesting that Steve Peters and his Chimp might be able to solve that problem.

That I would like to see!


Read more columns by Derek Park here


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