Here’s how British Cycling did it. They were skimming the bottom after almost a hundred years of non-performance. And recently, in just a tenth of that time, they went from zero wins, to setting nine Olympic records and seven world records.
What’s the secret behind their awesome performance at the London Olympics? What led to this epic transformation? James Clear recounts the story in his book Atomic Habits. Pick it up; it’s a great read.
Sir Dave Brailsford, British Cycling’s performance director believed in the magic of small improvements. And he applied that belief to everything that British Cycling did.
Small details that we probably don’t think twice about – he took them; and changed them for the better.
For example, paint. Dave painted the inside of the team truck white. It helped spot dust that messed with finely tuned bikes. He rubbed bike tires with alcohol to improve their grip. He tested muscle gels to find one that helped faster recovery.
These things by themselves don’t mean much. But put together hundreds of small improvements like these – and voila! You hit jackpot.
Or in this case, world records.
Can you replicate what Dave Brailsford did for British Cycling in your life and your business? Of course yes! All it needs is the 1% better approach.
The small negligible improvements Dave made are called Marginal Gains. Aggregation of Marginal Gains can help you achieve epic results. Just improving by 1% per day for a year, you end up 37 times better off than you were when you started.
Here is how the math works:
Improving by 1% every day for one year: (1.01) 365 = 37.78
Jokes aside, some of the most innovative companies in the world use the marginal gains approach.
Take Google, they run over 12,000 data driven experiments each year to spot opportunities for improvement. One such experiment led them to change the color of the Google toolbar to a
Just that ONE thing increased click-throughs and boosted revenue.
Similarly a hospital in the UK was struggling to contain medical errors. They took the marginal gains approach: Added checklists in the OT. Altered drug labeling for easier identification. Systematically improved hygiene. Added text to color coded wristbands. And implemented hundreds of small changes like these.
The impact was tremendous. It reduced the hospital’s liability claims by 74 per cent.
And what’s even better – it saved lives.
We are led to believe that every great story has one defining moment. I say – bulls**t.
You don’t reach your goal in one jump – it takes every little step to help you get there.
Let’s say you improve every step by 1% covering that tiny bit of extra distance with each step. Before you know it you’ll reach your goal ~37x faster. And you’d have achieved this with barely noticeable effort.
With Marginal Gains you aren’t moving mountains. You are just making little tweaks to accelerate your progress towards your goals.
On the other hand, if you make your steps just a little bit smaller every day, you may likely never reach your goal.
Yes, there is negative compounding too! Doing something incrementally worse everyday for a year will get you down to almost zero.
Getting worse by 1% every day for one year: (0.99) 365 = 00.03
Everything you do adds up to form your habits. It makes a difference to who you are and what you can be. The choice lies with you. Compound the positives (productivity, knowledge, relationships…). Or, fall into the black hole of the negatives (stress, negativity, outrage…).
Accomplishing one extra task a day is a small feat; over an entire career it could mean a lot.
Repeatability builds habits. Habits require less thinking. That means more mindspace for you to focus on other areas or learn a new skill.
When you build repeatability you can automate things and get exponential gains
One idea may not make you a genius, but lifelong learning can be game changing.
Every book you read, every skill you learn adds to your idea repository. You learn to look at old problems from new angles.
When you think different, you are different.
People reflect your behavior. If you are nice to them, they are nice to you. If you help them, they help you.
Putting a little more effort in to your relationships every day can boost your social currency.
The result – a broad and strong network over time.
The frustration of a traffic jam. The weight of parenting responsibilities. The worry of making ends meet. The strain of slightly high blood pressure.
We deal with stress everyday. And usually we feel it’s manageable. And we ignore it.
But when stress persists for years, it compounds into serious health issues.
The more you think of yourself as worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way.
You get trapped in a thought loop.
Negative thoughts also influence your perceptions about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, or selfish, you see those kinds of people everywhere.
Outrage compounds. Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. A long series of microaggressions slowly multiply. Finally one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.
The universal truth for every small win or setback is that slowly and steadily they compound and become habits. The question is: are you adding up to win?
Now we know what marginal gains are. We know the concept has been used to achieve amazing wins. So how do we put it to practice?
By building a system that works – one, that brings you closer to your goals.
What’s the difference between systems and goals?
It’s a distinction Scott Adams of the famed Dilbert comic made – “Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results”.
So let’s put the system in place. Success depends on three things:
1. The understanding of your purpose – Establish what you want to improve. What is the overall goal? Better productivity? Improved Efficiency? Profitability?
2. A plan to go from where you are to where you want to be – Identify ALL factors that impact your goal. Is it your business process? Is it the work culture? Is it the air conditioning?
List down even the minutest detail. And then brainstorm on how it can be improved. Make a time bound plan to implement these improvements. Stick to it!
3. The mindset to succeed – Build the right mindset to get the most out of the marginal gains concept. Question things. Accept change. Create contagious enthusiasm for the team to work together and identify growth areas.
For this system to work, you need an approach that keeps you focused. I’d recommend the Kaizen way.
Kaizen is the Sino-Japanese word for improvement. The manufacturing industry has been using it for decades to gain big from small, continuous improvements.
To practice Kaizen you need to:
Do a 5-minute exercise every day. Every morning, mull over these principles and see what you can apply them to that day. Then do it.
As you start practicing the Kaizen mindset, you’ll notice things you haven’t before. You will focus on things that matter. You’ll start applying the scientific method to question everything. You’ll find better ways of doing things. And these small, consistent actions will multiply your output manifold.
Every year we select a few entrepreneurs to work with us to grow their companies while reducing the number of hours they invest working “in” the business. If this year if your year, if this is the year you will love to see extraordinary success for you business, we would be curious to see if we could help.