The fruits of marginal gains

“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.


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The hunger of a cyclist


Over the past fortnight it has been inspiring to watch the heroic performances of the Olympians as they push the boundaries of what is both physically and humanly possible.    One of the standout performances for me has been watching Team GB dominate the velodrome and in particular seeing Jason Kenny win his sixth gold medal in a nail biting final of the somewhat eccentric Keirin competition.

In this increasingly celebrity driven world, Kenny cuts an interesting figure.   Unlike his peers he has no sponsorship deals and instead relies on his lottery grants (which does make a major difference) to fund him.     He shows a pure hunger for the sport.   His motivation is simply to ride as fast as he can, therefore removing any distractions that may get in his way.   He appears to have little interest in being a celebrity and instead simply lets his pedals do the talking.  There is a purity to his focus and attention.

It provides a timely lesson to us all around motivation and focus.   Sometimes it is easy to get distracted by external events or factors.   Kenny’s brilliance shows that if you want to be successful then do what you love and focus purely on this.   As the softly spoken Bolton peddler demonstrates the results can be impressive.

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