Attaining 1% Marginal Gains

The fate of British Cycling changed one day in 2003. Being an avid cycler and runner, I read a lot about peak performance. One of my favourite and most inspiring stories was about the British Cycle team. They hired a guy called Dave Brailsford as its new performance director. Before this point, the British cyclist team have barely won a thing in 100 years!  British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games. To make matters worse 110 years had passed since their last win at the world-renowned tour de France! 

Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “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 improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” That simple philosophy turned one of the most underwhelming cycling teams, into one of the most transformative! Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available.  They continued on to smash Olympic records and seven world records! 

Now, I ask you. How do you apply the '1% gains rule' to projects? Often in my line of work, the number one reason for failure is what I call the 'too fast, too soon' effect. We try for a big bang of improvement, expecting a seamless and smooth result. But in nature, humans aren't geared for change. We're wired for survival, even now. But perhaps, if the '1% gains rule' was applied, we would look to improve in-house, we would build a culture of continuous improvement, if ever so slightly. The only problem with this is time pressures. Interestingly, if you read more about Brailsford's method, you find some changes were so tiny, so exceptionally small, that the improvements were barely noticeable. However, if you have a whole project team dedicated to this Philosophy, as Dr Seuss says, 'kid, you could move mountains'

Thanks for reading.

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