Two Lengths of The Pool

A Clear And Simple Purpose

“Surely your job is simply to swim 2 lengths of the pool as fast as you can.”

Simon Hartley, quoting his advice to Olympic swimmer Chris Cook, in his book Two Lengths of The Pool

When Chris Cook received the above advice from Simon Hartley (his sport psychology consultant), his swimming career was somewhat floundering. Thereon, however, he went on to swim in the Beijing 2008 Olympics and became the seventh-fastest man in his event, ever. What changed? The focus changed.

Up until then, Chris Cook and his team were bogged down in strategic tweaks and minutiae – their purpose was unclear. Their focus was at their feet, on what could be improved today without knowing whether or not it would breed the desired results tomorrow. With ‘two lengths of the pool’ as their mantra, they became laser-focused on a simple mission.

“We discussed how we could simplify everything! Could we have a single focal point; to direct our attention towards the detail of our immense and intensely hard work… could it be done?”

Chris Cook in his Foreward for the book Two Lengths of The Pool

With a clear purpose, Chris and his team began to train effectively. They examined how they spent their time and eliminated anything that didn’t contribute to this simplified outcome, “to swim two lengths of the pool as fast as you can.”

“It [the ‘2 lengths of the pool’ focus] not only made navigating my way toward my childhood dream crystal clear, but also assisted people in my team to understand where they fitted in and could maximise their impact upon my performance “

Chris Cook in his Foreward for the book Two Lengths of The Pool

Two Lengths Of The Construction Industry

If we apply the same logic to the construction industry, what is our equivalent to the “two lengths?” What is our clear and simple purpose? And what are we doing to simplify our operations to get there?

I offer our “two lengths” is:

To deliver our projects safely and adhering to the Employer’s requirements. Specifically; on time, within budget, as per the contract documents, and with no one hurt in the process.

How are we doing with this? Well:

  • 90 percent of the world’s infrastructure projects are either late or over-budget.1
  • American builders’ productivity has plunged by half since the late 1960s 2

It’s as though we don’t see the point of what we do. Wouldn’t you agree?

One of three things is happening.

  1. We aren’t aware of our equivalent “two lengths,” our single-most crucial reason we get to work.
  2. We are aware of our “two lengths,” but we still allow our focus to stray elsewhere, leaving our actions misguided.
  3. We are aware of and are focused on our “two lengths,” but we haven’t examined each element of our delivery strategy and asked: “does this help us ‘swim quicker’?”

In sixty years, productivity in the US has halved. The global average is an increase of only 1 percent. Our ineffectiveness is not a slump or recent lapse. It has become the industry norm and our reputation. Do you reckon it’s time we turned things around?

We need to get laser-focused on our “two lengths,” our clear and simple purpose. And then do whatever it takes to fulfill it, eliminating everything that doesn’t help us get there.


  1. According to this article, “Efficiency eludes the construction industry”, in The Economist (Aug 2017)
  2. According to this article, “Efficiency eludes the construction industry”, in The Economist (Aug 2017)

2 thoughts on “Two Lengths of The Pool

  1. Take a look at some work by Bent Flyvberg on projects overunning. Various industries and their performance across the categories you mention. Olympics is always interesting, always on time!

    1. Thanks for the pointer, Michael! Very much appreciated!

      I’ve read some of his papers, and the statistic above (90 percent of infrastructure projects are late or over budget) is one of his quoted by The Economist. Are there any particular findings of his that came to mind when you read this post?

      Also, I’m curious. When referring to the Olympics, are you talking about the construction projects required to host the games, or the games themselves?

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