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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Noble

1% Better: The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Updated: Aug 23, 2023






For the entirety of the 20th century, the British cycling team was awful. They had only won a single gold medal at the Olympic Games, and the team had never won the Tour de France. They were so bad that sponsors didn’t want them to display their logos for fear that their association with the team would hurt sales. If the team had any chance at success, something dramatic had to change.


Enter Dave Brailsford. Brailsford was hired as the team’s performance director in 2003, and his meticulous approach to success was a new one in the field of cycling. Brailsford ascribed to the philosophy of achievement through the “aggregation of marginal gains.” In other words, he believed if you could make enough microscopic improvements- improving by 1%- those improvements would eventually accumulate to significant gains.


Brailsford and his team began their quest for making marginal gains. They experimented with massage oils with the cyclists to try to improve muscle recovery. They invested in electrically heated cycling shorts to keep cyclists’ legs warm. They hired a surgeon to show the cyclists how to properly wash their hands to reduce the likelihood of catching a cold. They painted the inside of their truck white to increase their ability to see specs of dust that could interfere with the bikes. They pursued excellence, relentlessly.


Brailsford’s investment took five years, but in 2008, the British cycling team dominated the Olympic Games taking gold in 60% of the events. Four years later, they set nine Olympic records and seven world records. That same year, a British cyclist won the coveted Tour de France. Then, they won it again in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.


Clearly, Brailsford’s method worked, and there are some lessons to be learned that can apply across all industries.


Lesson #1: There’s only one way to eat an elephant.


Rather than attempting to tackle everything at once, Brailsford broke down the components of cycling into small, manageable, bite-size pieces. He took a mountain and turned it into a series of mole hills.


Sometimes, large endeavors can seem daunting and overwhelming. We will often defeat ourselves before ever beginning. In the 1980s, psychologists Susan Folkman and Richard Lazarus found that the amount of stress people experience directly relates to how confident they are that they can deal with the perceived threat. In other words, if someone knows what to do in a stressful situation, they experience less stress, and vice-versa. When we deal with a problem that’s overwhelmingly large, it’s hard to know where to start. We are quick to experience helplessness which, in turn, leads to stress. However, if we apply the Brailsford method by taking that large problem and breaking it into tiny pieces, we are able to develop a manageable game plan, thus diminishing our stress and allowing us to move forward.


Lesson #2: Patience is truly a virtue.


Brailsford’s method took five years before the first big success, and another four years for it to peak. He (or his boss) could have gotten frustrated after the first year and pulled the plug on the entire operation returning the team to its status quo of mediocrity.


Investments take time especially those that involve humans. Belief in the investment and trust in the process can go a long way. Management researcher, Jim Collins, spoke to this in his book Good to Great. Collins found that great organizations didn’t become great in one fell swoop. They followed a predictable pattern of consistent build-up and breakthrough. They exercised patience and discipline towards their cause. Collins likened it to pushing a flywheel. At first, it’s slow and hard to push. But, with persistence and patience, not only will it move but it will start to gain momentum.

Lesson #3: Encourage innovation.


To Brailsford, no idea was a bad idea. His team tried everything if it meant it could result in a small step in the direction of progress. This means, Brailsford cultivated a psychologically safe environment. Team members under Brailsford’s leadership felt safe to share ideas and didn’t have to guard against attacks on their competence if they had an idea that was perceived as “dumb.”


Psychological safety is defined as the belief that someone can speak up without the risk of punishment or ridicule. And, it is vital for the health of teams. Psychological safety has been linked to greater innovation, high-quality decision making, and healthy group dynamics among co-workers. It also has been associated with higher integrity in the workplace. Brailsford’s leadership style welcomed all ideas, and as a result, it produced many more marginal gains.


 

Brailsford’s transformation of British cycling was incredible, yes, but it was his exceptional leadership style that warrants celebration. Chances are, Brailsford wasn’t some genius who generated all of the novel improvements to the British cycling team by himself. Instead, he set the conditions for those changes to occur. He communicated his intent and expectations clearly, he exercised patience with the process, and he encouraged his team members to take risks without the fear of ridicule. As a result, the team flourished and so did their performance.







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