“It’s all about marginal gains. The low hanging fruit disappeared years ago.”
– Iain Dwyer
This quote was a reaction from Team GB’s coach Iain Dwyer in response to the questioning British cycling faced as they dominated the recent Olympics. The response reflects the endless pursuit that British cycling has experienced throughout the past 15 years to move from serial losers to world beaters.
In recent years Britain has dominated track cycling and they have created a winning blueprint. Put simply the velodrome in Manchester has become a gold making factory. One of the characteristics of the success is down to the concept of marginal gains. In essence implementing a series of tiny improvements which when you aggregate together create a substantial improvement in performance.
Matthew Syed, in his excellent book Black Box Thinking, helps to explain how marginal gains works in practice. In Syed’s words “marginal gains is not about making small changes and hoping they fly. Rather, it is about breaking down a big problem into small parts in order to rigorously establish what works and what doesn’t.”
The examples from cycling and Formula One demonstrate that step changes in performance can be made my looking at the individual percentage point improvement. To Syed’s point, marginal gains is not about simply making small changes for change sake. Instead you need to apply scientific rigour to understand what impact an improvement makes. It is about testing small changes in a controlled environment to understand what works and what does not. It’s about finding the things that make a difference.
There is so much organisations can take from this when looking to tackle the most challenging problems. It’s about taking a systemic approach to managing and implementing improvements by breaking things down to focus on the individual parts. As cycling shows adopting a relentless focus on detail and applying a systematic approach can transform performance.