The aggregation of Marginal Gains

    Karl Morris points to the success of small incremental gains, as a path to major overall performance improvement, as evidenced by the achievements of Sir David Brailsford with British Cycling.Karl Morris

    One question I often ask members of the audience during ‘Mind Factor’ seminars at golf clubs up and down the country is this: ‘Which team has been the most successful in British sport in the last ten years?’ A certain football team used to pop up in the answers, a couple of other random teams get thrown at me, but in the main there is almost unequivocal agreement that the British Cycling team stands out as a beacon of unparalleled success in recent years. The team is led by a man called David Brailsford who has been knighted due to his incredible success; however back in 2008 the story was very different.

    No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France and our success in cycling in general had been sporadic. Brailsford was given the task of doing something about it. His approach was deceptively simple but ultimately profound.

    Brailsford believed in a concept that has now taken on legendary status in the world of sport business and coaching in general. His idea was one of a principle called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. When called upon to explain what it actually was Brailsford explained it as, “the one percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” His belief was that if you improved every area related to cycling by just one percent, then those small gains would add up to remarkable improvement.

    This is not unlike the Japanese concept of Kaizen. Kaizen was created in Japan following the Second World War. The word Kaizen means ‘continuous improvement’. It comes from the Japanese words ‘kai’ which means ‘change’ or ‘to correct’ and ‘zen’ which means ‘good’. Kaizen is a system that involves every employee – from upper management to the cleaning crew. Everyone is encouraged to come up with small improvement suggestions on a regular basis. This is not a once a month or once a year activity. It is continuous.

    With Brailsford and the cyclists they started by optimising the things you might consider as being obvious, the nutrition of riders, the strength and conditioning, the mechanics of the bike. But Brailsford didn’t just look for the obvious. He searched for one percent improvements in tiny areas overlooked by almost everyone else: discovering the pillow that offered the best sleep and taking it with the team to hotels, testing for the most effective type of massage gel, and teaching riders the best way to wash their hands to avoid infection. They searched for one percent improvements everywhere.

    Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years’ time. He was wrong. They won it in three years.Screen Shot 2015-04-07 at 15.19.35

    In 2012, Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. That same year, Brailsford coached the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games and dominated the competition by winning 70 percent of the gold medals available. In 2013, Team Sky repeated their feat by winning the Tour de France again, this time with rider Chris Froome.

    The effect of team Sky cannot be underestimated. When you drive your car at the weekend do you see more cyclists on the road than you did ten years ago? It is incredible the amount of participation in cycling and the interest aroused in no small way due to the success of Brailsford and his team.

    So what are the PRACTICAL and APPLICABLE aspects of the principle of ‘marginal gains’ and how can they be used in your business, in your golf or in your life in general? In my own coaching I often talk about the fact that success is just an accumulation of ‘good days’. So often we get lost in the ‘big picture’ and miss out on the daily efforts required to be a success at ANYTHING.

    Every daily habit you have, good or bad will accumulate over time and give you your overall success or failure in life. We easily we forget this when we want to make a change. So often we convince ourselves that change is only meaningful if there is some large, visible outcome associated with it. Whether it is getting fitter, building a business, winning a tournament or any other goal, we often put pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvement that everyone will talk about.

    Meanwhile, improving by just one percent isn’t spectacular. It doesn’t make the ground shake. But in the long run it WILL have an effect. In many ways it is the very opposite of the instant fix, ‘I want it now’ generation that has no concept of sticking to a process and being absorbed in the journey.

    The problem is that the same pattern works the other way in reverse. Nobody wants to talk about the aggregation of marginal losses but if you CONTINUE to make poor daily decisions, however small they WILL add up. These things don’t happen overnight, they are an accumulation of poor daily decisions. It’s the sum of many small choices a one percent decline here and there eventually leads to a problem.

    Karl Morris2
    The principle of the ‘accumulation of good days’ is so simple yet so effective because you are focused heavily on areas you have DIRECT influence on, namely what is going on here and NOW today. You get to feel a sense of achievement on a regular basis by controlling YOUR input to the life you lead. The big lofty goals are important to give us reasons to put in the good days but it will always come down in the end to the quality of the DAILY input.

    Take the opportunity to start small by changing aspects of your CURRENT daily behavior. With each marginal gain you make  a move forward towards what you want and more importantly move AWAY from the outcomes you don’t. Take the simplicity of David Brailsford’s message and begin to see the effect of your own marginal gains.


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    Miles is the Owner and Managing Director of Robel Media, and the award winning GOLF RETAILING Magazine. With over 25 years in the media business, Miles has a wealth of experience in magazine publishing, digital media and live events. HANDICAP - 7.2