Many people will have heard of Sir Dave Brailsford, who is a real pioneer of the ‘Marginal Gains’ movement. It really came to the fore when Brailsford was the Performance Director of the Sky cycling team.

Definition of Marginal Gains

His definition of marginal gains is centred around the idea of making small, incremental improvements in various aspects of cycling performance and team operations. ‘The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.’ ; the cumulative effect of making many small, continuous improvements in multiple areas could result in a substantial overall performance improvement. This approach was credited with helping the Sky cycling team achieve remarkable success, including victories in major cycling events such as the Tour de France.

Examples of its use

Aerodynamics – worked extensively on improving the aerodynamics of their cyclists and equipment by just small amounts.

Nutrition – team paid close attention to the nutrition of their cyclists. They developed personalised nutrition plans and optimized the timing and composition of meals to enhance recovery and performance.

Equipment – invested in top-quality bicycles and equipment. They also made small adjustments to bike components, such as the choice of tires, to minimise rolling resistance.

Training – utilised advanced training techniques and technologies. They measured and analysed data on power output, heart rate, and other metrics to tailor training programs to individual riders.

Psychological Preparation – emphasized the mental aspect of cycling. The team worked with sports psychologists to help riders develop mental resilience and focus.

Sleep and Recovery – maximising rest and recovery was a priority. The team optimised sleep environments, used recovery techniques like ice baths, and provided massage therapy.

Logistics – paying attention to logistics helped reduce stress and improve efficiency. This included travel arrangements, equipment transport, and planning for various contingencies.

Business Use Applications

Marginal gains can also be applied to the business context to improve overall performance and achieve sustainable success. Some examples of how the concept of marginal gains can be applied to business are:

Continuous Improvement Culture – foster a culture of continuous improvement within the organisation. Encourage employees at all levels to identify areas where small changes can be made to enhance efficiency, reduce waste, and improve the quality of products or services.

Data-Driven Decision-Making – use data and analytics to identify areas where marginal gains can be achieved. Analyse key performance indicators (KPIs) to pinpoint weaknesses and opportunities for improvement.

Streamline Processes – continuously review and streamline operational processes. Look for bottlenecks, redundancies, and inefficiencies that can be eliminated to improve workflow and reduce costs.

Customer Experience – pay attention to every aspect of the customer experience. Small improvements in customer service, website usability, or product packaging can lead to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Risk Management – identify and mitigate risks to your business. Small steps to improve risk management can prevent costly disruptions.

By consistently seeking marginal gains across various aspects of your business, you can gradually accumulate improvements that contribute to enhanced competitiveness, profitability, and overall success.

The Key Takeaway

Examples of the 1% improvements, or marginal gains, can be found in various areas of performance, whether in sports, business, or personal development. In Personal Development if you say save 15 minutes a day by improving your time management skills, it amounts to about 1% of your daily waking hours. Over time, this adds up to increased productivity, or by losing just 1% of your body weight through better eating habits and exercise it can lead to improved overall health and fitness. In Investing compound interest is the classic example. By incrementally increasing your savings rate by 1% it can have a significant impact on your long-term wealth due to the compounding effect.

The key takeaway is that small, consistent improvements in various aspects of performance, even if they seem insignificant individually, can add up over time to produce significant overall gains. The 1% improvement mindset encourages continuous reflection and refinement in pursuit of excellence.

Link to Winners

This leads nicely into the related book review this month. I have actually reviewed this book before (4 years ago) but I read it again recently on holiday, and I picked up so much more the second time round that I thought it would be worth reviewing again. The book is ‘Winners: And How They Succeed’ by Alistair Campbell. In this book, Alistair interviews dozens of elite athletes, top managers, entrepreneurs, sports stars and the rulers of countries. Marginal gains and all the related psychology feature heavily in the book so the two aspects fit nicely together.

Campbell establishes:

– How winners tick

– How they build great teams

– How they deal with setbacks

– How they deal with new challenges.

The book is split into 4 parts with the headline elements being:

Part 1 – The Holy Trinity

‘Strategy is God’ is the first 3 words in the chapter and goes on to say that you can have all the talent and ambitions you need, but without clear strategy, the ambition will not be fulfilled. The Holy Trinity in Campbell’s eyes is OST, ie. Objectives, Strategy and Tactics in that order. The objective is the what, the strategy is the method to achieve it, and the tactics are the actions taking to achieve the strategy and the objectives. Part 1 then moves into leadership and teamship before more detailed examples from interviews with Jose Mourinho, Anna Wintour and Edi Rama.

Part 2 – It’s All In The Mind

Part 2 is all about the right mindset, and the attitude you take to a challenge. Great ability doesn’t always mean they will be winners and begs the question ‘Who wants it more?’. The fear of the comfort zone can often be a great motivator. Pressure can be good, but stress is bad. Clive Woodward gives the example of a simulated helicopter ditching exercise on a trip to the marines. After that Woodward adopted the mantra T-CUP, Thinking Correctly Under Pressure, and this can come from endless practice and preparation. Focus often leads to obsession and this is a clear theme throughout the book from many of the interviews. The power of visualisation is also used by many including Jim Carrey, Michael Phelps and Richard Branson. The main interview at the end of this section is with the boxer Floyd Mayweather about the mindset of an unbeaten winner.

Part 3 – Standing Out From The Crowd

This part covers boldness, innovation and data, and ends with examples of turning data into bold innovation using Formula 1 and Narenda Modi as case studies. Richard Branson is one of the examples of bold and using the essence of boldness; being clarity, timing and luck! You have to be careful though not to cross that line from boldness to recklessness! Innovation very much fits into the Dave Brailsford and marginal gains area, as does Obama and the way that led to his election success.

Part 4 – Changing Setbacks Into Advantages

Part 4 looks at crisis management, resilience and the winning spirit. Crisis management breaks down into six steps; stay focused or else lose the plot, be honest with yourself, be honest with others, organise and change quickly, give a crisis a human face and lastly cover all the bases. The detailed case study is Heathrow Airport and the launch of Terminal 5. Resilience is best described by Nelson Mandela who said ‘do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again’

The final chapter in the book is ‘The Art of Winning’ and brings in views from many including Warren Buffett and Haile Gebrselassie. The very last line in the book is ‘Winners win, because they have to’

An excellent book, even better the second time round and well worth a read.