Think Big… Start Small

Eeh, gads!  The annual performance review was just a few weeks away and already beads of sweat were forming on my, usually, unfurrowed brow!  Had I completed all my objectives, had I gone the extra mile, had I improved in any way over the past 12 months?  I was beginning to think that perhaps it was too late  to do anything about it when I read an article on [Sir] Dave Brailsford – hero of the British Olympic cycling team and Team Sky – and his philosophy of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains‘.    What – you may well ask?  Despite this complicated sounding phrase I continued to read and thought, “Yes!  This is what I need to do.”  There is always going to be one big objective that needs to be achieved but instead of worrying about the whole, think about the small; those little things that help you get there along the way.

Brailsford took over as Performance Director of the Team GB cycling team in 2003.  In 2004 the team won only 2 gold medals at the Athens Olympics.  In 2008, at Beijing, they won 8!   This was repeated a year later at London 2012, quickly followed by success at the Tour de France with Team Sky – Bradley Wiggins winning the famed Yellow Jersey and Chris Froome coming second; and then winning the tour for himself in 2013.

Such achievements  clearly do not come overnight.  The original plan for the Tour was to win once in five seasons but in fact it was done twice over four!   So what was changed to bring around this transformation?  The principle behind marginal gains is a simple one.  “It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do.” Using  the analogy of a Team GB cycling mechanic Brailsford explained,   “If a mechanic sticks a tyre on and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it’s not an insult – it’s because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely everything we do.”   The idea is 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.”  In 2008 Nicola Cooke won the gold medal in the Women’s Road Race.  She is a perfect example of how marginal gains helped her to that medal.  Her clothing was changed from the traditional road shirt and shorts to a seamless skinsuit – more aerodynamic.  She used ultra-light tyres – risk of puncture high but one worth taking.  And finally taking an approach around a particularly difficult corner more slowly than her competitors due to road conditions, calculating – correctly – that she could make up the difference.   Individually these changes did not win her the gold; it was all of them – together – that gave her the winning advantage.  Lots of small things making up a whole.

Now, having created a progression path of success,  the goal still remains the same – to keep winning the biggest races in the world!  “Sport is about continuous improvement, it’s about getting better.  It’s about being better next year than you are this year.”

So, with that in the forefront of my mind I went back and reviewed my objectives, set out the previous year, to see exactly how – if at all – I’d improved.   I realised that although I had indeed completed the tasks set out I wasn’t convinced that I’d actually moved forward year-on-year.  My approach to the assignments was the same as before – just get it done!  Tick!   Now, though, it’s time for a change.  Take apart the aspects of my job and put them back together, improving each task by 1% – whether it’s opening up communication lines, having a more organised desk, clearing out my Inbox – one small thing at a time to help me function more effectively and efficiently – getting that 1% gain in everything will add up to one big gain which benefits everyone.

Brailsford’s marginal gains concept is one that can be adapted to all sorts of environments whether it’s sport, work or personal.  Make one small change today and you’ll reap the rewards.


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