Athletes from Great Britain have dominated in the velodrome at the Rio Olympics, as they did at London 2012, and Beijing 2008. A Brit has also won the Tour de France four out of the past five years: quite a turnaround, given that until 2012, Great Britain had never triumphed in the world’s most grueling bike race.

The secret to this success? A surprisingly economic approach, known as the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. Simply put, it’s about improving everything you do by 1%.

For British Cycling it all began in 2003, when Sir Dave Brailsford, a former amateur cyclist and MBA alumnus, took over as performance director.

Doing 100 things 1% better

The approach is not unique to Brailsford. Rugby World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward emphasized the importance of ‘critical non-essentials’ in the run up to the team’s 2003 success.

However, Brailsford has overseen a period of almost unparalleled success. Under his leadership, the cycling team won eight gold medals in Beijing and another eight in London on the track and road. Further success has followed at Rio. Prior to Brailsford taking over, British success at the Olympics had been limited to just two golds.

Couple this with Sir Bradley Wiggins’ and Chris Froome’s Tour de France successes, and the impact of marginal gains is clear.

 GB Olympic cycling medals
Image: Financial Times

As well as searching for tiny gains in predictable areas, such as nutrition, training and the design of the bikes, Brailsford went further afield. From searching for the most comfortable pillow for cyclists to take everywhere, because good sleep boosts performance, to the best hand-washing techniques to avoid illness, no stone (or in this case, pillow) is left unturned.

On their own these steps might not make much difference, but when combined the impact can be transformative.

Can you learn anything?

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Brailsford explains the power of the culture created by marginal gains. Everyone is looking for ways to improve, whether individually or as a group. If an entire organization is constantly striving to improve, it's going to create a positive and dynamic culture.

He is also clear that he sees the approach as applicable to the world of work. “I think there are ample opportunities in the corporate realm to apply the marginal gains approach,” he argued.

Watch him explain more in this video:

A 1% improvement might not be instantly noticeable, but in the long run it could make a big difference – especially as the results are cumulative. In our lives, at home or at work, we might focus on the big change, the big solution. But focusing on the little things and aiming for continuous improvement might be even more powerful.

As Brailsford says: “Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvement.”

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