The leadership lessons from the debacle of a major African sporting event

Crash landing
Crash landing
Image: Reuters/Dylan Martinez
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One of Africa’s biggest athletics events, the Africa Senior Athletics Championships, also known as #Asaba2018, took place in Asaba, southern Nigeria last month. Sadly, I and a good many other Nigerians looked on aghast as the championships turned out to be an utter shambles with late visas, athletes stuck at the airport, and collapsing buildings. Playing the wrong national anthems seemed almost like light relief after some countries pulled out. Though there were one or two people who felt otherwise.

The popular business philosophy of the day is to describe failures as a good thing because they provide learning opportunities. This massive fail should provide us with a lot of learning opportunities and here are my takeaways.

Figuring out objectives

Hosting a major athletics event is a huge undertaking, both in terms of the financial commitment and also in terms of the commitment of management time and effort. Before starting any big project, it’s important to understand clearly why you want to do it and what you hope to get out of it.

Major sporting events are often about showcasing the host nation to boost sectors like tourism or attract foreign investment. They can sometimes have a vanity mission, to show you’re at a turning point in your history or at a certain level of development, for example.

But it was never clear to me the objective of hosting #Asaba2018. Sometimes things like this are undertaken because it is felt that they are the sort of thing a large country “should” be doing which should be the last reason. Sometimes it’s simply because officials want an excuse to spend money. If there was an objective to #Asaba2018, it was clearly not achieved.

The resources challenge

Before undertaking a large project, it’s important to ensure you have the right resources to complete it, or that you will be able to obtain those resources while implementing the project. In my career financing infrastructure projects, I’ve seen many projects fail because the sponsors of the project weren’t able to ensure they had sufficient resources (mainly money in these cases) to complete the project before they started them. While some people can get away with this, including some very successful entrepreneurs I have worked with, it is generally not best practice and certainly something that a good financier will be looking out for.

In the case of #Asaba2018, the resources that were required, in addition to money, would have been adequate infrastructure, including airports, flights and other transportation links, accommodation and sports facilities. It seems #Asaba2018 was lacking in all of these dimensions. It also seems it was lacking in “human capital” resource as well. This is perhaps most important in delivering large and complex projects.

Who’s in charge?

No one seems to know who to blame for the #Asaba2018 fiasco. This points to another probable cause of its failure. A lack of clear responsibility and leadership. We often associate successful sporting events with a single person, for example former US Republican leader Mitt Romney and the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Projects are only delivered successfully when it is clear who is responsible for delivering them. As they say, if everyone has responsibility for something, it means that no one has responsibility for anything.

As a financier of major projects, I have always ensured every investment and other type of project that we worked on had one person who was responsible for its delivery. This person would typically be a mid- to senior-level manager for whom these projects would form a large part of their work programs, and an equally large portion of their performance evaluations. The executive level managers were responsible for overseeing these project leaders and ensuring that they had the resources necessary to deliver the projects. The executives were also responsible for presenting these projects to the board for approval with me stepping in if they got something wrong or were struggling. The person with project responsibility would oversee the project team and be responsible for every step of delivery.

When overseeing projects like this it’s important the project leader be given very clear objectives, but should not be given a detailed prescription as to how to get there. Rather they should have the training and knowledge to figure it out for themselves (with more senior people being available to assist if asked or if the project doesn’t seem to be on track). This is based on a management principle developed by the German military in the 19th Century.

Project management

There are many approaches to project management, and some can get very complicated, but at its core it’s about breaking a project up into digestible steps and figuring out the timing and resources needed for each step, as well as the interaction of that step with other steps in the project process.

Adequate project management allows teams to work out the best sequence of steps to deliver the project and, importantly, to figure out where the biggest implementation risks lie and what sort of contingencies need to be made. Proper project management allows you to track progress and alert you if things start to go off course, allowing for necessary corrections.

The contingency plan

Of course, things can still go wrong, even with the best planned and managed project. One of my favorite 19th Century German field marshals once said:  “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”.

Things always go wrong. More so when you have a complicated event involving a lot of people, and many moving parts. It is important to think of possible contingencies—what can go wrong—and to have plans and resources assigned to deal with these contingencies, if and when they arise. It is also important to have a crisis communication plan developed for such events. Should something go wrong how is that to be communicated and who has responsibility for communicating it.

Given the apparently shoddy planning that went into #Asaba2018, it is hardly surprising that there seems to have been no crisis or contingency management plan. So when things started going wrong there was nobody to turn to. It also seems clear that there had been no dry runs to see whether things would work as assumed. As Archilochos the Greek poet said: “we don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training”. Practice is a very important part of contingency planning and crisis management. The reactions of the organizers of the #Asaba2018 games indicate that there wasn’t anything like an adequate contingency plan.

Nigeria has hosted reasonably successful sporting events in the past, like the 2003 All Africa Games, so there is nothing that should have prevented success this time around.