12:00 AM, 03 01, 2016

The Power of Marginal Gains

Have you heard of Sir Dave Brailsford? If you work in business, you might not only know him as the head of British Cycling that took Britain from one single gold medal in 76 years to seven out of 10 gold medals at the London Olympics, but as the inspiration behind the revival in marginal gains. 

His method was taking the theory of marginal gains and applying it to cycling and it has captivated people interested in sport, or simply interested in business for its simplicity. 

The ideas is that if all the components of a successful project (eg – completing a speed track race) could be broken down into pieces and improved by just 1% - then there would be a significant aggregated increase in performance. You might also recognise the theory as its Japanese term - Kaizen – which was extremely popular in the 1980’s after books such as Kaizen: the Key to Japan's Competitive Success by Imai, M was released. The method was based on encouraging businesses to “sustain continual improvement in all aspects of their enterprises”. It was this book, studied at MBA level that Brailsford had gathered inspiration from. 

Marginal gains sounds simple – but just how small are the changes you can make? Interviewed by the BBC, Brailsford spoke of the small, seemingly insignificant elements that made up the marginal gains. 

“…..seemingly indirect details, such as taking with their favourite pillows everywhere they went so that they got the same decent night’s sleep, cleaning their hands more effectively so that didn’t get ill so often, and wearing “hot pants” to heat their muscles before races; each of these aspects was approached with a view to achieving marginal gains.”

Marginal gains might sound familiar to you if you read the 2008 best seller “Nudge,” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Inspired by behavioural science, nudge theory is the idea that small interventions that don’t cost much can change behaviour in large ways that serve both individuals and society – and it’s being trialled everywhere from the NHS to job seeking. In 2013 every civil servant in Britain was being trained in behavioural science and the core belief of ‘nudging’ is that people do not always act in their own self-interest. They can be lazy, uninterested, and need guidance and – you guessed it – nudging. 

Business owners tend to love the idea of marginal gains because it means small, near invisible changes that ‘move the ship forward’. But small changes can have their dangers, as Brailsford himself testifies to:

“Interestingly, when I moved from the track to the Tour de France, we didn’t get it right at all; our first few races were well below expectation. We took an honest look and realized that we had focused on the peas not the steak. We tried so hard with all the bells and whistles of marginal gains that our focus was too much on the periphery and not on the core. You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus your improvements around them. That was a harsh lesson.” (Brailsford speaking to Harvard Business Review) 

Another issue is the ‘pack mentality’. If everyone in the team, office or group has bought into the 1% improvements, then you ay be astounded at how much knowledge people want to share. From quicker ways to open necessary PC programmes, speedier ways to edit documents or time saving filing systems – marginal gains is an environment where any improvement goes – and this makes it a management theory that is democratic. However, if employees or team members don’t see the value of improving in small increments, they won’t – and there may be resistance to change that halts the whole process. 

What ideas can you change? Well, that’s custom to your own business. But think broadly. It could be an increase in your office temperature, a change in  the time your automated answering system kicks in, or the addition of a 5 minute stretching break in the morning.  It could be a new piece of software that can be accessed by sales teams on the road, or a change in your required field on your CRM or  ticketing system. It could mean removing, or adding a log in function when someone uses a laptop, or taking away the chairs from your internal meeting rooms. It could even be culture changes, such as introducing new starters to the whole business one day one, or rewarding employees on their 3, 6 and 12 month anniversaries with low value gift cards. 

In short – marginal gains could work for your business, but only if you have the time to commit to document the whole process, identify improvements, ensure everyone is on board and importantly - that you can constantly refine your improvements. 

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