“The aggregation of marginal gains” is a phrase charged with positivity, thanks to the successes of British Cycling’s Olympic team from 2008 onwards and the Tour de France wins of Team Sky.
David Brailsford was the architect of those successes, the former performance director of British Cycling and is currently the general manager of cycling’s team Sky. Thanks to his approach, British cycling has gone through a golden age, with Team GB leading the medals table in cycling at the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games and picking up five Tour de France wins for Team Sky between 2012 and 2017.
But how did he get these results? Brailsford aimed to improve everything his cyclists did by a mere 1%, with excellent results. There were three broad pillars on which the marginal gains model was built: strategy, human performance, and continuous improvement.
While this meant improvements across the bikes (such as lighter materials) and the cyclists themselves (in areas like nutrition optimisation and behavioural psychology), it also required strong foundations which would allow the programme to flourish in the present and to continue to flourish into the future.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review (HBR), Brailsford spoke about these and some of the other benefits which arose as a result of the marginal gains programme, including improved team work.
As a passionate amateur cyclist, Brailsford was well placed to kick-start the revolution. But he wasn’t just a cyclist; he holds a master’s degree in business administration (MBA), and his expertise and success in cycling can be transferred across to business.
So how can you take the same holistic approach and apply the marginal gains model to your business? How do you improve efficiency and performance by one percent across every area of the business?
Let’s start with the three pillars: strategy, performance, and continuous improvement.
Before kickstarting any new process or implementing changes to the way things are done, it’s important to take a strategic approach.
Look at which issues you think affect your business, and then try to visualise the strategic path to improvement. What do you eliminate, how quickly or slowly do you phase out that behaviour or process, what is it replaced with, and how will you measure the future performance against the historical performance?
Next, hone in on the most pressing weaknesses, the most business-critical areas, and work your way out to the least important issues from there. Start with the areas your most need to address.
The next thing you need to consider is how team performance can be improved, which leads to an uptick in productivity.
As Brailsford noted in his interview with HBR, one of the incidental benefits of the marginal gains model was the flourishing of a cooperative culture, leading to an increased enthusiasm for team-work.
Because of the team structure involved, mutual accountability and team work was central to success. Equally, however, without everyone’s buy-in the system could not work.
It’s important that you can get your employees and your colleagues on board to maximise the positive potential available with this approach; by ensuring that you’re all working towards the same goal, you can shape a dynamic workplace that can adapt to new challenges.
3. Continuous improvement
Continuous improvement arises once the first two pillars are in place.
By underpinning progress with mutual accountability, by inspiring your team to look for ways in which they can improve their own areas, and by correctly strategizing any changes, you will lay the foundations for future improvements.
This is the best thing about the marginal gains model: while 1% improvements sound small, they compound over time. In just one year they could represent a cumulative 10 or 15 percent increase.
So, what do these look like when applied across your different business areas?
The way you can market your brand online has changed dramatically over the last 15 years. The model has shifted from paid advertising through to social media presence, though the monetisation of social is moving to the fore.
Before you commit to spending money on paid social advertising, you should take the time to review your social channels to establish which one is the best performer.
When you find out, you can investigate how much paid boosting will cost. Start small; this a trial-and-error process to establish when and what sort of content will perform best. From there, you can look to increase this month by month, while using engagement figures as the metric for measuring success.
You’re not looking to see a sudden exponential increase in engagement – remember, incremental growth is what you should expect with this approach.
Administration and data
Keeping on top of administrative processes and procedures takes time and commitment, and with changes to data protection regulations it is important to ensure that these systems are adequate for the task at hand.
Streamlining processes and ensuring you have robust data protection procedures in place will help you to stay ahead of the curve. Getting prepared for new data protection requirements now will also help you to audit your processes: are you keeping unnecessary paperwork? Are your filing systems adequate, or do you struggle to find things as and when you need them?
Taking a look at the way you do things and why can give you a fresh perspective and help you to streamline where it will help the most.
Money matters (finance, facilities and procurement)
There can be a lot of red tape and bureaucracy involved when it comes to the financial side of your business. With tax liability, minimum wage compliance, accountancy obligations, expenses AND ensuring that the business runs at a healthy margin, there are a lot of things to keep track of.
The metric for measuring the marginal gain in this area could be different depending on what you change, but you will broadly be looking to save money or increase profits across the business, or perhaps to streamline certain processes.
There are several ways to reduce expenditure: energy efficiency measures, for example, can reduce energy bills, or switching to a more competitive supplier can do the same.
Another small increase could involve streamlining certain processes within the department – by cutting down just 1% on unnecessary administrative duties, you save both paperwork and time. By working out when you need certain machinery turned on instead of running 24/7, you can cut your bills. A little effort goes a long way.
Knowing how to continue growing your business can be a difficult issue, but instead of pouring time and money into several channels and hoping for the best, you can target incremental increases in a specific area.
Selecting one area for improvement and driving growth via that channel – even slightly – can help to bring focus to your growth strategy.
Deciding which area to target can be difficult, but think about it from a sales perspective. This could mean providing a better aftercare service for customers, with follow ups to learn from customers how you can improve your post-sales service.
This proactive approach can extend to your HR strategy, too – people make the business. Ensuring that you correctly target the right people and skills for your business can help to lead to organic, skills-based growth in the future.
Keeping ahead of the competition is essential, and offering second-to-none customer service is a great way to ensure brand loyalty.
So where to focus your efforts in this area?
You could focus on user experience, ensuring that the customer journey on your website is as smooth as possible to improve conversion rates, with the knock-on effect of improving sales figures.
Product development – are you engineering new products for your current customers? Are you improving on the products and services that your competitors are offering?
Maybe your “1% effort” could be asking customers at the end of each call or email exchange how they found their experience with your business. That one question takes seconds to ask, and you don’t even have to pledge to act on all feedback straight away – but you’re gathering very important data with very little effort.
Remember, none of these solutions are meant to offer a striking impression of immediate success. The idea of marginal gains is exactly that – small, incremental improvements to individual parts which come together to create significant improvements to the whole.
An important caveat to note, too, is the one that Brailsford highlighted in his interview with HBR: focus on the core areas of your business, not the peripheral ones. Make sure you target improvements which are important to the success of your business, and work your way out to the less important issues.
Keep these core values at the heart of your efforts and with time, you may be experiencing a whole new type of success.