The Power of Marginal Gains
I first heard of the power of marginal gains as a student. Back then “the power” of ideas such as marginal gains, marginal pricing, marginal costing, marginal probability and compound interest were all being used in business studies to show how something didn’t have to be “wiz, bang, new, fast and you beaut” to make a difference. It was power man!
Compounding interest has continued to fascinate me and occasionally I while away the odd hour on Excel running compounding options. Truly fascinating…..really! The largest deal I ever closed was when as a young executive I convinced the board of a major American company to supply us on the basis of marginal costing.
Recently on a quiet Saturday (I know it’s sad) I googled “The Power of Marginal Gains” expecting to find a plethora of MBA theses on the subject but instead I found page after page of British cycling triumphs and a guy called Dave Brailsford – Now Sir Dave all thanks to his marginal gains!
No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, but as the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team), that’s what Brailsford was asked to do.
His approach was simple.
Brailsford believed in a concept that he referred to as the “aggregation of marginal gains.” He explained it as the “1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just 1 percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.
They started by optimizing the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training program, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires.
But Brailsford and his team didn’t stop there. They searched for 1 percent improvements in tiny areas that were overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for 1 percent improvements everywhere.
Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years’ time.
He was wrong. They won it in three years.
In 2012, Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. That same year, Brailsford coached the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games and dominated the competition by winning 70 percent of the gold medals available.
In 2013, Team Sky repeated their feat by winning the Tour de France again, this time with rider Chris Froome. Many have referred to the British cycling feats in the Olympics and the Tour de France over the past 10 years as the most successful run in modern cycling history.
And now for the important question: what can we learn from Brailsford’s approach?
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains
It’s so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making better decisions on a daily basis.
Almost every habit that you have — good or bad — is the result of many small decisions over time.
And yet, how easily we forget this when we want to make a change.
So often we convince ourselves that change is only meaningful if there is some large, visible outcome associated with it. Whether it is losing weight, building a business, travelling the world or any other goal, we often put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.
Meanwhile, improving by just 1 percent isn’t notable (and sometimes it isn’t even noticeable). But it can be just as meaningful, especially over time.
And from what I can tell, this pattern works the same way in reverse (in other words an aggregation of marginal losses) a 1 percent decline here and there — that eventually leads to a problem.
In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1% better or 1% worse. (In other words, it won’t impact you very much today.) But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don’t. This is why small choices (“I’ll take fries with that”) don’t make much of a difference at the time, but add up over a period.
The Bottom Line
Success is a few simple disciplines, practised every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgement, repeated every day.
Most people love to talk about success (and life in general) as an event. We talk about losing 50 pounds or building a successful business as if they are events. But the truth is that most of the significant things in life aren’t stand-alone events, but rather the sum of all the moments when we chose to do things 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. Aggregating these marginal gains makes a difference.
There is enormous power in small steady wins. This is why the tortoise usually beats the rabbit, the system is greater than the goal.
Where are the 1 percent improvements in your life?
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