Aggregation of marginal gains: How small improvements can lead to a massive impact

The 18th century dawned with a promise of a hard time for British cyclists. From 1908 to 2003, victory at the Tour De France remained a dream, and only a single gold medal made its way back home from the Olympics. 

Times were hard. European manufacturers were hesitant to sell bikes to the Brits as they were afraid it would hurt business. A century of mediocrity as a professional cycling team followed the players like a plague. Until that one defining moment in 2003 when the board appointed David Brailsford as the new performance director.

Revolution for the British cycling team

Brailsford, an MBA-holder with a history of professional cycling, entered the arena bearing the weight of Britain's dark history. Yet, he managed to shift its trajectory completely. 

Once a team who hadn't won a single medal in 76 years emerged as the winner of seven out of ten gold medals at the 2008 Olympics. A similar striking performance came out four years later in London, setting nine Olympic records and seven world records.  

A century of doom had been forgotten. From 2007 to 2017, British riders captured 5 Tour de France victories, 66 Olympic medals, and 178 track cycling events in a mere decade. The decade is recognized today as one of the most massive successes in the history of professional cycling teams. 

What caused the big difference?

What did Brailsford have under his belt that all those before him didn't? How does a team of otherwise ordinary bicycle riders step into the arena one day and emerge as world champions? Such questions are especially pertinent because the team did not undergo radical changes or transformations. 

They had a man with a vision. Brailsford believed in and religiously practiced what he called the aggregation of marginal gains. This philosophy, now widely acknowledged, was once a phenomenon difficult to understand.

What is the theory of marginal gains?

On the final morning of the Beijing Olympic games, David went over to BBC breakfast and explained the marginal gains philosophy.

"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 improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together", said Dave. 

Seventy-six years of failing at the Olympics, and here came a man who believed in the big difference coming from minor improvements and changed the stage forever—a man who showed by example how continuous improvements accumulate into big transformations. 

What is the 1% improvement rule?

Think about the simplest tasks in life, such as brushing your teeth. If you want to do it properly, without leaving the bits hidden between the molars at the end, you start by making minor improvements. From upscaling your toothpaste brand to getting enough sleep to be awake enough, little changes can clump together to create a wide-scale impact. 

Understanding the marginal gains approach

To Sir Dave Brailsford, aiming for the top of the Olympic podium was the least of concern. In his eyes, the big picture could only be attained with enough effort on every step taken toward it. 

His MBA background gave him a natural inclination towards process-improvement techniques, like Kaizen. The marginal gains philosophy supported the belief in continuous improvement and compounding their impacts to progress rather than perfect.  

The implementation of the theory can be seen in the minor changes made to the team.

How the British cycling team dominated 

They started by making minor examinations. When they looked into the mechanics area of the supply truck, it was found that the dust from the floor was undermining the bike maintenance. They found a simple solution to it. They painted the floor of their team truck pristine white to spot any impurities accumulating on the floor effectively. 

Then, the rider's health was taken into consideration. To make sure the riders themselves were physically fit, they hired a surgeon. The surgeon was tasked with the seemingly insignificant responsibility of teaching them how to properly wash their hands. 

The task should be done with enough precision to not even let the bits between the fingers host germs. This effort ensured that the riders remained healthy and able during the competition.

Beyond fitness, marginal gains also require the need for consistency in performance. They made a habit of carrying their own mattresses and pillows so the riders could get to sleep in the same comfortable position every night.

The idea was simple. Brailsford was focusing on every area related to cycling and upscaling it by 1%. This meant that he paid equal attention to team nutrition, sleep, bike maintenance, management, morale, and supply and not just the act of riding the bike itself. 

"We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage", explained Dave. 

What are the key takeaways from the aggregation of marginal gains theory?

In an interview published in the Harvard Business Review, Bailsford talks about the limitless borders of the marginal gains theory. "I think there are ample opportunities in the corporate realm to apply the marginal gains approach, but I personally am more interested in how it can help public services," said Bailsford. 

This is a testament to the implications of aggregation of marginal gains beyond just cycling. The philosophy encompasses key life lessons that can help elevate your standard of life and achieve massive success.

The power of thinking small

While it is fun to sit and fantasize about having one defining moment that could change the course of your life forever, it is merely a glamorized picture. Waiting for massive impact only results in a 1% downgrade of your ability.

Instead, if we focus on other small changes, achieving 1% every day, we could become 10 times the person we are today. Whatever your target may be, don't straight up the dream of the Olympics. Identify what stands in the way of you and the gold medal, and solve each problem step by step. If you want to build a successful business, identify small improvements that can be made and take little steps to make those improvements.

Time as a friend, not an enemy

Looking at the philosophy of marginal gains from a positive lens can challenge your very relationship with time itself. After all, whether or not you upgrade 1% on any given day will not produce noticeable differences at all. You make an effort to change something but then move about the day following your habits.

However, four or five years from now, you sit down and think about the things that have changed over the years. That is when you can truly see the consequences of your actions unfolding. Good habits require patience and time simply become a friend.

Critical success factors

When we talk about experiencing 1% growth each day, we need to best determine what aspect really needs that 1%. When Braislford stepped in, he tried to identify what neglected aspects really required attention. However, while doing so, he made sure he focused on critical factors that would eventually lead to success. 

"You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus your improvements around them," explains Dave Brailsford. 

Nurturing growth on a daily basis

One of the key aspects of working as a team is having the sportsmanship to own another one's victory. If the marginal gains approach is well entrenched in a team, it can create a culture of nurturing one another. 

Once the entire team is aligned to this principle, the members all help one another to achieve the goal set. Everyone grows together and eventually achieves much more together than as individual members.

Team principles and cooperation

While identifying critical success factors for improvement, it is crucial to withdraw consent from every involved party. Sometimes, plans can be misunderstood and result in defensive strategies. As the team works towards identifying 1% improvements, make sure you get others to point out potential marginal gains and share their ideas too. 

In Brailsford's words, "One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn't work if only half the team buys in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment."

How self-improvement can change a life forever

During his teenage years, Jame Clear was a star athlete. Yet, little did he know that a devastating accident within the arena he shined bright in would change his life forever. It was his sophomore year in high school, and he was amidst an intense baseball game. 

Somewhere during that game, a baseball bat struck Clear in the face and resulted in a massive head injury. Nine months and countless surgeries later, Clear had only started to regain an understanding of basic life functions, such as standing straight or lying still.

He had a choice. Either, Clear could feel intimidated about having to restart everything he had and downgrade whatever was left. Or, he could choose to learn one new habit a day and make sure he upscaled 1%.

Today, as the author of The New York Times bestselling book Atomic Habits, Clear can best testify to the power of tiny habits. He is an emblem of ambition derived not from thinking big but rather from setting small goals. 

"Excellence is not really about making radical changes. It is about accruing small improvements over time," said Clear. 

He often talks about his inspirations by narrating a now-familiar story of the British cycling team and their crawl out of 100 years of mediocrity. Check out the video below to hear Clear talk about the aggregation of marginal gains and its influence on his journey. 

Marginal gains in action at work

When you're looking to apply the philosophy to your everyday life, take James Clear as an inspiration. Use Clear's formula to build or break habits. Any behavior that rewards your end goal should be a habit. 

He categorizes the formation of habit into four key stages. 

  1. Cue: the trigger to initiate the habit
  2. Craving: the prediction that compels you to act
  3. Response: the actual habit you perform
  4. Reward: the result that satisfies the craving

For instance, if you have an end goal to improve your customer churn. You need a cue to make it obvious and triggering, such as calendar reminders to analyze engagement behavior via an analysis tool. 

Next, you need to make it look attractive by, for instance, reminding yourself of the feeling of excelling. Third, you need to ease the process by perhaps making a schedule to follow and turning your slack to "focus mode." Last, once you're done with the day's work, reward yourself with kindness and appreciation to make it satisfying.

The 2-minute rule

James Clear uses the 2-minute rule as a tip to beat the procrastination of building a habit. It involves giving yourself some space initially. Set out small goals, even if it merely involves small tasks. Every 2 minutes, ask yourself what is that one action that can make this habit possible.

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