Leadership, Our Thinking

Marginal Gains


Executive Coaching Company Track Record 'Thinking Gains' logo

British Cycling, over the last ten years, has been one of the world’s most successful sporting teams and many point towards the application of the “Aggregation of Marginal Gains” as being one of our significant performance advantages.

Examples that are frequently quoted coming from this approach are; each athlete having their own portable bed and taking it with them to each competition, being taught how to wash our hands by surgeons, each rider having their own bespoke carbon fibre shoes and each athlete and staff member having sessions with psychiatrists to understand their inner chimp…When Sir David Brailsford, Performance Director of British Cycling (and my old boss) introduced this concept to the public, it was an instant hit with business.It was interpreted to mean, rather than hoping for the silver bullets and big costly improvements, making the difference, it was in fact the many small improvements, added together that resulted in a collective performance advantage over your rivals.

Managers across the country were asked and asking for “a one percent improvement in everything we do to result in a remarkable improvement.”

The translation of marginal gains was… Just do everything better. It relied on more effort and generally more time.

This is not how we went about it.

It is believed that as a team we then searched for small percentage improvements in every tiny area that had been overlooked by our competitors. However we simply did not have the time nor the resource to go through the exhaustive process of examining every area and then looking for ways to do them all better. The single biggest misconception of marginal gains is that people look at what they are currently doing and try to find ways to do them better.

We applied the concept in a more strategic and focused way.

Our approach was to fast forward to the Olympic Games and be very clear about what we were aiming to achieve, our End Win. We were aiming to win 5 gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

From the End Win we asked questions about our future performance, starting with, “What will it take to win?”.

With the answers to that question we created a performance model of the things we would have to get right in order to be successful, without which we would not be able to achieve our End Win.

For the 2008 Olympics, we came up with four areas:
1. Aerodynamics
2. Illness and Injury prevention
3. Physiological training (periodisation & recovery)
4. Team Culture “we stand behind our athletes”

These were the areas we knew we had to get right in order to deliver the types of performances we needed to be successful. We described these as our critical elements.

So it was with this future perspective we then started to research and investigate, what we knew about each of these critical elements, and crucially, what we did not know?

We realised that there were large gaps in our understanding and so created a huge list of possible actions and projects. We then prioritised the areas we believed would have the greatest possible impact on our performance, committing to those we would opt for and discarding those we would opt against. We know we had to opt out of several areas that could have made us better and faster but we simply didn’t have the resource to go after them.

The performance advantages we discovered within each critical element were the marginal gains. Therefore rather than random discoveries through examining everything, the marginal gain examples mentioned at the outset, (aerodynamic shoes, washing hands, personal beds, and psychiatric sessions) all came as a direct result of the research of our 4 critical elements.

Our performance process meant that we were very clear on the areas we would focus and who would own them, making it both efficient and accountable. Our team meetings focused on the review of our critical elements, tracking the measures and progress of our marginal gains.

The result of our clarity, commitment and ownership resulted in exceeding our 2008 Olympic End Win, winning 8 gold medals, 4 silver and 2 bronze.

When coaching senior leadership teams to implement Marginal Gains successfully, we go through the following steps:

Create clarity in your End Win. Go to the future and ask, “What will it take to win?”.
Research to create your critical elements and owners of each.
Ask questions of the performance required to win, “What do we know, what do we not know?”.
Select the areas to opt in and opt out.
Prioritise the areas with the greatest possible performance impact, the Marginal Gains.
Review and track progress of the Critical Elements Commit to regularly repeating stages 2, 3 and 4 taking external factors in to account.

At Track Record we act as the team’s conscience, supporting teams to avoid the inhibitors to this approach: Team members acting as a collection of individuals, focused on personal interest, burdened by representing their current departments, rather than a cohesive team of custodians acting in the interest of the future businessEgo and reputation blocking a true investigation of what will make a difference in the future Reaction to emotional short term encounters rather than making decisions with the future performance in mind. A lack of maintained commitment and urgency when tracking and challenging progress against the critical elements and marginal gains. For further reading on this topic:Freakonomics by Steven Levitt & Steven Dubner

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