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The Art of Marginal Gains

In a blog from late last year we wrote about why it’s important, in a business context, to stand for something or have a personal point of difference. In other words, what sets you apart from everyone either doing the same job as you or looking for the same job as you? What is your edge over the competition?

Considered from a leadership angle, what if instead of doing one thing better than anyone else, you did several very small things better than anyone else? What if, for example, you looked at several different aspects of your workplace and made tiny adjustments to improve the performance of your employees and of your company? What if you replaced everyone’s desk chairs with more comfortable models? What if you switched the snacks available in the break room from sugar-based to protein-based? What if you installed non-fluorescent lights, or used a more thorough cleaning company – would people get less colds and take less sick days? What if you changed the start time in mid-winter so people could sleep in an extra half an hour? You would not expect that any one of these changes would make your employees more alert, healthy and happy but, taken together, do you think it would change the overall performance of your team? Put another way, if you make a 1% improvement to several aspects of working life at your office, would the total gain be greater than the sum of the parts?

This is a doctrine known as ‘marginal gains’ and it holds that, essentially, it’s the small stuff that matters. Most famously, it was put into practise by a once-obscure professional cycling coach named Dave Brailsford in the early 2000s. He had just taken over Great Britain’s cycling program, which was a laughing stock of the sport. By breaking down ‘everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike’ and making a 1% improvement, his riders came to dominate the Olympics in Beijing, London and Rio. When he later took over Team Sky, his riders did the unthinkable and won the Tour de France five times.

They kept the technical stuff under wraps but what is widely known is that they got better team chefs and made sure that the athletes didn’t eat the same thing (pasta) every night, as had been standard practise for decades. They travelled with mattresses and pillows so that riders could sleep on a consistent surface when they were on the road. In fact, they sent an advance party of cleaners to every hotel, whose job it was to disinfect every room, right down to the TV remote control. They also used colour coded water bottles to prevent sharing. Team Sky riders stopped getting sick. What it proved was that if you could pay attention to all these ostensibly little things, you could equip yourself with a serious competitive advantage.

Marginal gains, as a theory, has been adopted in several industries from healthcare to aviation to tech. It has been a hugely successful strategy for many businesses as well, reversing the age-old assumption that everything lived or died based on the big decisions when actually it was the very small decisions and actions on a day to day basis that made all the difference.

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