So many people in life and in business are searching for ‘the answer’; the one thing that they need to do that will quickly and substantially transform their business or make them happier. However, the fact that no one has yet identified this magic pill probably means that it doesn’t really exist. So instead why don’t we focus on the small things that will ultimately make a massive difference…let’s focus on making marginal gains.
Former British Cycling's performance director, Sir Dave Brailsford, believes that marginal gains were the reason for transforming his team’s performance in 2012. And given the team’s huge success he is probably a good leader to listen to and learn from…
All Olympic athletes are fighting fit and in peak condition, but the magic ingredients often come down to subtler changes, which when added together, make the difference between success and failure. So maybe if you stop worrying about what your competitors are doing, and focus on the detail in your own routines you could make a bigger change. If you are really clever you can then spot the stumbling blocks and then resolve them. For example, if, like Dave, you see that a bike is not as aerodynamic as it should be, you change the design; if you discover that the dust on the floor is harming bike maintenance, you paint the floor white so that it then shows up any flaws, however small.
If we all changed how we looked at things and saw each limitation as an opportunity to modify what we are doing to create marginal gains and make improvements then we might not become so self-critical. Nor would we wallow in the thick mud of doubt and uncertainty.
If we focused on the things that we know made a difference and see how we can make small changes that will have a notable impact then the cumulative effect might be quite incredible. Let’s go back to the cyclists...They used anti-bacterial gel to avoid infection, they wore ‘hot pants’ to improve their start times by 100th of a second and they used their own pillows at night to ensure that they slept well. And look what difference, cumulatively, those changes made!
The John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford also used marginal gains to improve its intensive care unit provision. They knew that if a patient recovers quickly, beds are not blocked and more people can be treated without adding more resources. They analysed the recovery process and focused on the quality of their patients’ sleep. The ICU was like a noisy café during the day and once every 4 minutes during the night the noise was louder than a road drill. Staff limited their conversations, alarms on monitors were reduced and the metal medical waste bins were replaced with noiseless plastic. The end result of these minor adjustments was faster recovery for patients.
So how can we transfer the power of marginal gains to business success? Small adjustments to team composition can result in a rise in productivity and can boost performance. So too: streamlining your admin processes, simplifying your supply chain and cutting service response times. You must, however, be relentless and pursue the tiniest gains in everything...
Britain’s cyclists have been utterly dominant in the velodrome at the Rio Olympics, winning seven medals so far (four of them gold) and with a good chance of taking three more golds in the final session this evening. Alongside natural talent and lots of training, one of the reasons for this success is the fabled marginal gains approach, with aerodynamic socks, carbon-moulded custom shoes, and even telling riders not to shave their pubic hair in order to reduce the problem of saddle sores.