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The Power of Marginal Gains and Small Wins...

July 06, 20237 min read

This is going to be an article about how we can increase individual and team performance at work…but bear with me, it’s important to start a little further back in the theory…

You all may have heard the term ‘incremental change’, whereby small changes are made over a period of time to improve performance, efficiency, sales etc. You may have also heard of ‘marginal gains’ (also known as the 1% theory) – similar but different. Marginal gains is the theory that small, yet significant improvements can lead to monumental results. Many of psychologists and theorists have talked about the impact of striving for marginal gains and Matthew Syed specifically goes into this theory in his book ‘Black Box Thinking’ (he also wrote a piece on it for the BBC).

Let me give you an example of where this theory can be put into action to create improvement…

In sport, individuals and teams are quite often near the top of their game – so how do they get better? How do they create that competitive edge to outperform their competition?
A phrase coined by Sir Dave Brailsford when he was appointed Performance Director of British Cycling (in 2003) and faced an uphill battle with a team who had been struggling to perform. The principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that went into riding a bike, and improved all elements by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together – similar to the ‘sum is greater than the parts’.

The marginal gains that the British cycling team worked on included better seats, better grip on the tires and measurement of each individual cyclists performance. Because of the mindset he introduced, the whole team started looking for these incremental gains and they also tried the following:

– Using indoor cycling suits for outdoor races as they were lighter weight and improved the aerodynamics

– The physios tried different types of massage gels to find which one aided the quickest recovery

– They handpicked bedding for each cyclist (including pillows) to aid the best sleep

– The coach had the floor of the workshop painted white so that any bits of debris could be noticed quickly so not to hamper the performance

– The team analysed each individual on the team and out them against a benchmark of what was expected – a few were replaced

In 2004, the team won a few medals at the Olympics…not bad going as they only started looking at these types of changes the 12 months previously…but this was nothing compared to the 2008 and 2012 Olympics where Britain secured 8 Golds each time, and also clocked up 7 world records and 9 Olympic records. Furthermore, between 2012 and 2018, the British cycling team won the Tour De France 5 out of 6 times…how did they do this?

By incorporate the 1%, marginal gains technique of making those small changes to each element so that when put together, the improvements are huge.
But here’s the catch – it may not be quick and you must keep moving forward without expecting immediate results…but when they do come, they will give you that competitive edge and accelerate you progress. By introducing these small changes, you will also be forming new habits that ensure that this increase in performance is not a flash in the pan, but a sustained behaviour that will continue to produce improvements.

How does this work in business?

I recently read a HBR report called ‘The Power of Small Wins’ by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, whose content on how to motivate employees reminded me to much of some of the aspects of marginal gains, that I wanted to talk about the link and how we as leaders can tap into this.

Through an exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, they discovered the ‘progress principle’ – of all things that can boost emotions, motivation and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. The more often people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run, even if is progress through a daily small win. This supports the work on motivation carried out by Dan Pink and his work on the 3 elements of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Having meaningful work, work that brings you purpose.

So, as leaders, how do we get to these small wins? Those small wins that will firstly motivate employees and increase longer term productivity, creating the behaviours and habits for future success?

1. Understand what both individual and teams need to motivate them.

Amabile and Kramer call this ‘knowing what serves to catalyze and nourish progress, and what does the opposite’ and this concept also links closely to Herzberg’s two-factor Theory (Hygiene and Motivation factors) – Amabile and Kramer state that knowing this is the key to effectively managing people and their work. Find out what these factors are and help your team to take a step forward every day…give them the tools and the help them create the mindset to find those 1% improvements which may seem small everyday but over time will improve performance.

2. Learn the actions that support progress.

These may include, setting clear goals, providing sufficient time and resources and giving recognition. Here’s a hint – also find out those actions which will hinder progress…

3. Create the environment in which the team can thrive.

I realise that this is a wide and large ask…but let me give you some context. Alongside having meaningful work, studies have suggested that people are more creative and productive when they feel happy and have positive perceptions of their colleagues and the organisation. As the leader, have those discussions, open up the feedback loops, role model the behaviours you want to promote and give the team time to become…well, a team! I’ve talked before about how teams can take a while to form and bond and become psychologically safe (if you are interested, please see a previous LinkedIn post on Team Development, featuring Tuckman’s model of Team Development) – you have a hand in creating the safe space and guidance for them to do so.

4. Recognise the small wins.

Simple right? But we are often so busy striving for those ‘big wins’, the ones that makes the all hands call, the ones that have the Partners clapping and (gently) slapping you on the back and saying well done…but these big wins are relatively rare. Think of a project where you might be the project manager. The big win is finishing the project, on budget and in time…but over the 6-12 months there will be many, many small wins – winning over a stakeholder, the comms going out and creating excitement, a call with the suppliers that results in some money off, the excited email from the sponsor telling you how pleased they are that it all seems to be on track…focus on these small wins – yes, we are all pushing towards that end goal, but it is these small wins that will keep the team (and you!) motivated. Also, never underestimate the major impact that these minor wins can have on peoples feeling about it. It may look like a small win, but it may have a huge impact on the persons emotions.

Marginal gains and small wins – small, everyday wins that create new behaviours and habits and create longer term progress. Your team can be at the top of its game, it will still be able to find a way to break down larger tasks, and make those 1% improvements on the smaller elements, and make those marginal gains towards further improvement, giving you the competitive edge. The small wins need to be recognised and celebrated as it is these that will spur your team on and motivate them to look for the 1% improvements…and don’t forget the role modelling that you will also be giving to this equation…afterall, you may be the ‘leader’ but never forget that you are also part of the team.

I could probably write another 3 or 4 pages on this topic alone but am going to leave it here, having hopefully given you some food for thought!

If you’d like to talk about uncovering opportunities for marginal gains in your company, DM me or book in to arrange a chat!

Zoe Poulton

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