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The secret to making the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games work as well as it did? Banning spreadsheets

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood May 28, 2024
The Smartsheet enterprise work management platform was a single source of truth at the Orlando 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, which is thought of as one of the Games’ most successful ever events

An image of special Olympics medals
Photo by Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

Imagine having no permanent organizing committee or playbook for a week-long event at a third party site, with a fixed date in the calendar, that needs thousands of volunteers to come together to make happen. 

What those volunteers need to deliver: everything from equipment deliveries, accommodation, technology, and transportation, to catering, equipment, audiovisual kit, and volunteer coordination - across 11 sites at your chosen location.

Then ask yourself: Would you want to see if I can make that happen just by using email and spreadsheets? 

Four years ago, a non-profit sector veteran CIO called Lonnie Snyder decided that he didn’t really want to take that bet - and instead mandated the use of an enterprise work management platform approach for all stakeholders, for the event they all wanted to make a success.

A very special kind of Olympic Games

The event in question is the Special Olympics USA Games 2022.

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver to inspire a more inclusive world, by celebrating athletes with intellectual disabilities, The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual disabilities (ID), of which there are estimated to be 200 million.

Providing year-round training and activities to 5 million participants and Unified Sports partners in 172 countries, and recognized by the International Olympics Committee, the Special Olympics are separate from the Paralympic Games.

Though the movement holds multiple events year-round, the biggest is always The Special Olympics USA Games.

Held every four years, the next is scheduled for Minneapolis in 2026 - but at the last one in June 2022 more than 5,500 athletes, 10,000 volunteers and 125,000 attendees gathered in Orlando, Florida.

But as stated, planning the Special Olympics’ biggest event soon becomes very complex as a new organizing committee is appointed every four years to plan each Games.

And while Snyder has built a planning document for 2026 - where he will be Chief Technology & Information Officer - previously there was no real template to work off. 

That resulted in, he says, disjointed and outdated ways of working at scale that can lead to delays and inefficiencies, in everything from project management to procurement. 

He says:

Every Games is basically a startup - you execute an event, and then you quickly wind down. That means you have no infrastructure, no systems, no ‘enterprise’ anything and you're trying to quickly get through that Gartner ‘crawl-walk-run’ model as fast as possible, so you can execute an amazing event. And then everyone's off to the next thing.

For 2022, we had about 45 full-time staff and 15 to 20 contractors - but there were 20 sports executed over a week, a multi-state torch run, 25 special events, including the opening and closing ceremony; it’s a lot.

Avoiding the Excel ‘hot mess’

The many contractors and consultants the Games needed to work with would be coming in with their own productivity and communication tools.

With that, and the huge pull of email and ‘free’ collaboration systems like Excel and Google Docs, which are especially common for the non-profit sector, Snyder knew he had to do some convincing of colleagues and partners.

Specifically, he needed buy-in for the adoption of a solution from what Gartner defines as Collaborative Work Management - a category that includes systems like Asana and

However, his preferred choice was neither of these, but an enterprise work management platform called Smartsheet. 

More than just replacing email and spreadsheets, he in fact wanted the software to become the committee’s central collaboration hub for working with thousands of stakeholders - for it to be the main source of truth for planning the hundreds of sports and medical check-ups a Games encompasses.

Snyder had used the tool in his previous role with Special Olympics International.

There, he was struck by the way users of all technical skill levels could be productive with it, while also noting the scalability it offered to manage large events.

He says:

To be honest, I'm of the school that Excel is the devil. Once you get someone to send you something, it's immediately outdated because four or five people got the same thing, everyone starts working on it, everyone replies all with comments and changes, and soon you just have a hot mess. 

Snyder acknowledges that he faced opposition and push against using a single tool, because everyone wanted to use their tool.

But, he says:

I knew for us to be successful, we had to think differently and get out of the mindset of ‘This is how it's always been done,’ because we were an organization that was going to have a short lifespan. 

If we were going to be successful and execute the largest USA Games in history, we needed to work smarter, not harder.

Snyder’s stubbornness seems to have paid off - as post-event, the organization estimates use of the technology saved at least $200,000 by avoiding the need to hire at least three more staff.

All in all, the system also helped successfully manage all participant and volunteer schedules, giving athletes, coaches, and spectators up to date information about the Games over each exciting day.

This was delivered, he says, as a common master schedule attendants could easily access in the Games’ first-ever mobile app.

Snyder says the route to all this started with creating project plans for the more than 70 internal projects that, even in its earliest days, 2022 would need. 

These plans were then turned into a Special Olympics USA Games ‘map’ that allowed stakeholders to always track the progress of each project and its impact on overall delivery.

Senior managers were then further aided, he says, by a set of custom dashboards, while external partners were kept up to date with a portal that similarly provided transparency as to what was really happening (or needed to happen next).

For example, a process that was previously managed in a 60-page shared document was also turned into just one dashboard for all planners.

In terms of timeline, Snyder onboarded in March of 2020, the single tool was in place by the end of April, and the Games were held successfully just over two years later.

He says:

Everyone understands what it's like to not be able to find a key critical piece of information or to have left an important document or a binder at the office - to not be able to access it, it's a really frustrating thing.

Eliminating those pain points and moving things into a cloud-based infrastructure you can access from any device anywhere on the planet, changes everything.

To be in the middle of a venue, have someone ask a question, and be able to pull out your phone with the app and have the right answer in seconds - that’s a game-changer.

After we did that a few times, people went, ‘Huh, maybe this tool is actually good, and we should be using it.’ So, we overcame the doubters and the naysayers and focused everyone by trying to do things together - all in the same boat, rowing in the same direction.

Amusingly, that didn’t always work: Snyder says he had to deal with a lot of ‘shadow IT.’

He says:

We had one instance where a group that was supposed to procure the special events equipment, the large TVs and monitors, all the 75-inch outdoor-rated gear…

We had our main operations center set up, it was a 15,000 square foot outdoor tent with air conditioning, they're ready to get going and they're looking at the front of the room, like, ‘Where the Hell are our big TVs?’ - and whoops, someone hadn't followed our protocol and so they missed it. We had to quickly improvise and get them something sourced.

The secret (weapon) of Special Olympics success

Interestingly, it wasn’t just big TVs or what was happening on the track, field, or golf course that attendees benefited from integration at this scale: their well-being got taken care of, too.

He says:

Special Olympics is actually the world's largest public health provider for people with ID. In Orlando, we did over 13,000 health screenings across seven disciplines - we do that because people with ID often die up to 16 years sooner than the general population, and from preventable things.

We found in Orlando that almost 50% of the people who were screened either needed glasses or were wearing the wrong prescriptions; in the 2018 USA Games, we found 46% of the athletes were wearing the wrong size shoes. How can you compete at your best if you don't have the right shoes?

Little things that you and I take for granted are disparities that exist with this population.

Summing up, Snyder is happy to say that,

Smartsheet was our secret weapon. We wouldn’t have been able to execute the event without it, honestly.

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