Marginal gains - can business learn from sport?
In the world of sport, we all know that every effort is taken to gain competitive advantage. Some professional sports seem to go the extra mile, or should I say an extra inch, to gain even the smallest of advantages in what is commonly called "the aggregation of marginal gains".
Life's this game of inches. One half-second too slow, too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.
The above quote was from the sports movie Any Given Sunday. The idea portrayed is that, in the world of sport, it is the small things that make all the difference in winning. To gain a few inches in American football, could be the difference that will allow the team to achieve touchdown.
The philosophy of marginal gains was introduced by Dave Brailsford to the Great Britain cycling team when he was appointed as the team's new performance director in 2003. Prior to his appointment, British cycling was a disaster. The GB team had only one 1 gold Olympic medal since 1908 and they had never won the Tour de France. The team were so bad that they often had to make their own way to international events because the cash strapped team could not fully fund their participation.
With Brailsford's new philosophy, British Cycling began to change. The philosophy was to break down the contributing factors to a win, in every possible way and then look at how those areas could be improved. However, they weren't looking for drastic overhauls. The philosophy was to go for the small 1% gains in every possible area. If all these gains can be achieved then the compound effect of these marginal gains can give a huge overall incremental gain.
Brailsford didn't just go after the obvious things like the quality of the bikes, athletic fitness and nutrition. He examined every single aspect that impacted that sport which included:
- Looking for the best massage gel for muscle recovery
- Customized aerodynamic helmets
- Specialised sweat-resistant clothing
- Spraying alcohol on the bike wheels to help increase race start traction
- And even, special hypoallergenic pillows to enable a better night sleep
By using this holistic approach to achieving success by applying the philosophy of the aggregation of marginal gains, the GB team went on to achieve great successes. Between 2007 and 2017 they won 178 world championship and gained 66 Gold medals in the Olympic and Paralympic games. They went on to have 6 Tour de France victories by 2018. British Cycling had been thrust into the spotlight as a great international team.
Other sports such as rugby have applied the same ideas. Clive Woodward brought in a learning and development consultant called Humphrey Walters who applied the idea of 100's of 1% gains.
Success can attributed to how a team work together under pressure, how they understood the importance of teamwork and loyalty, and how they were willing to do 100 things 1% better.
You can see how this mindset can be applied in the world of business. If you examine what you are trying to achieve, and then look for every small thing that contributes to success, you can then look for the small things that you can do to gain that small 1% gain. On aggregate, this will make a large difference.
You can also apply this in your own personal life. Imagine you want to lose weight. If you went for a brisk 20 min walk every day then you can burn, on average, about 100 calories. In itself, this isn't going to help you lose much weight but if you do this every single day for a year, then that is the equivalent of walking nonstop for over 5 days of the year! You would have burnt 36,500 calories. It becomes significant.
In business, we often have a tendency to set big lofty goals. There is then a huge buzz and excitement as we head out to achieve these goals only to run out of steam. We peak too early, burn out and do not have the stamina to continue.
Our great ideas start with lots of enthusiasm but only to a few months down the road, the initiative has fizzled out and our goals were never achieved. So perhaps try something new, instead, look for the small incremental changes you can make across your work and with your business team. If each day you could change one thing that would give a 1% improvement within that area, by the end of the year you will be achieving more than you could ever have imagined.
To close off, I will give you a real example from the world of business where this is done successfully. Consider Apple and the packaging you receive your new iPhone in. Apple has given its attention to every small detail of how you unbox your new phone. It is an amazing sensory experience as everything feels and looks perfect. They haven't undercut anything in the packaging but instead, they have gone the extra inch to gain a little bit more. No one would think that the packaging of a new product means so much but it does, it changes our experience and for some (not me ;-) ) it enhances their love for Apple.
Many other companies have copied this and thought about their own packaging. I had a similar experience when I unpacked my crypto.com Visa card. "Wow". It felt good from my first contact.