Olympic Cycling Team GB – and the aggregation of marginal gains

Even for those of us lucky enough to have attended the London Olympics, that event has long faded in our memories of 2012 along with the discovery of that Higgs Boson thing, and the Greek debt crisis (… apologies if you happen to be Greek). What was a blissful British summer of sporting extravagance now seems so long ago. But for me one lesson keeps coming back.

The British cycling team played a major part in the British medal tally, bringing in 7 out of a total of 29 golds. The memorable aspect however was not the gruelling months of exercise, nor even the astonishing mental discipline. All that was inspiring, and frankly beyond most of our average lives, and yet somehow it is what we have become accustomed to. We just expect this level of dedication of our modern day athletes. What was more memorable and actually more remarkable than that, was the story of “marginal gains”.

Chris Hoy

Chris Hoy on track for sixth gold

These days there is very little that separates those in the Olympic medal category and those who don’t make it to the Olympics at all. There are many athletes around the world with the right genes, prepared to do whatever it takes. Many have access to fantastic training facilities and are coached by talented men and women. But that “very little separation” is what this team managed to home in on and master. The cycling team’s performance director, Dave Brailsford, has been described as more of a meticulous organiser than a coach due to his astonishing attention to detail.

For example he realised that there was up to an hour between semi-final and final races, so he introduced “electrically heated hot-pants” that kept his athletes’ leg muscles warm for that time. He arranged for every rider to have their own pillow and mattress to sleep on each night to help ensure a good night’s rest. He introduced the team to a supplier of made-to-measure foot-wear with custom made soles; and he avoided the courtesy buses for transporting the team about, choosing instead to use a vehicle he ordered himself, more comfortable and free from potential infection. On top of this, every part of the cycle came under even greater scrutiny and was purposely designed for minimum resistance and maximum efficiency. At one point the French team accused the Brits of cheating since the British bikes had more aerodynamically shaped wheels with new front fork designs. Ironically these machines were actually built in France!

But what was his point? That a 1% gain in efficiency, a 1% improvement in sleep pattern, or a muscle that is more relaxed by 1%, is by itself only a marginal gain, it is of no consequence. But taken together, the aggregation of these gains can (and did) produce a dominant winning effect for the team. This is what he termed “the aggregation of marginal gains”.

Business and Personal Life

The same principle has obvious applications in business. When growing a commercial venture, growth can come in large steps, either through the acquisition of another company, or through commercial roll out of a new and disruptive technology. More often however, businesses just have to get better at all those countless individual activities usually taken for granted. The CEO of my company, John Giere, has a phrase that he uses: “making success happen every day”. His point being that success is not so much about launching the shiniest newest product, although that can help, nor even about landing the biggest deal of the year, although we all want to do that. No, success comes about more often by people being encouraged to be marginally better at more of their tasks, more of the time.

Looking even wider than that, I think this principle, with a small twist, can also apply outside of sporting or commercial endeavours. People who often seem to be most satisfied in life as far as I know don’t usually have a big secret (…unless it is a VERY big secret). They are more often people who find small things to be happy about. They are genuinely thankful when it turns out to be a warm sunny day (certainly for those of us living in the UK anyway); they take time to value and enjoy even a simple meal, they often display small habits of reading or tea and cake walking, and importantly, they find small but frequent amounts of time to invest in relationships. Most of the time they don’t even know they are doing it.  These people will aggregate gains over a long period of time, entirely unconsciously.And when life’s storms hit them they have a wide context in which to place the event or trauma whatever it is, and a highly developed sense of gratitude for all that is still well in the world.

Even if we ourselves don’t fit this description, we all know people who do. The rest of us?  Well we claim we don’t have time for all this. I know. But in the end, isn’t that our own decision?

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