In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear does a great job telling the story of marginal gains and British Cycling. During the last decade, British cyclists have dominated the sport under Dave Brailsford's management. Brailsford is known to look for small opportunities to gain competitive advantage instead of focusing only on high impact improvements. These small opportunities include things like teaching team members how to wash their hands properly so that they would get ill less often and packing your own pillow when travelling so that you sleep a little better on the road.
Brailsford's claim is that if you break bicycle races into all the elements you can think of, and then improve every element by 1%, you end up with a significant increase in performance when you add up all these marginal gains. To read an excerpt from Atomic Habits about British Cycling and marginal gains, you can visit jamesclear.com/marginal-gains.
In addition to the big effect marginal gains can have as they compound, looking for 1% improvements can help your team avoid analysis paralysis: teams are forced to let go of the idea of perfection and focus on progression instead. However, before you introduce the idea of marginal gains to your team, there are couple of things you might want to consider:
Marginal gains are not long shots
Tim Harford points out in his article about marginal gains that "long shot" innovations are also needed in our society. Long shots are breakthrough innovations that change industries as opposed to small improvements to existing technologies. Whereas marginal gains resemble baby steps, long shots are giant leaps. As Harford puts it, "Marginal gains give us zippier web pages; long shots gave us the internet."
Would Blockbuster still be operational if it had focused more on marginal gains? Probably not. As business environments change, you also have to make substantial systematic changes to your operations. Marginal gains might sustain your competitive advantage against other established incumbents but not against upstarts that operate with new technologies and business models.
Critical success factors
While Brailsford does look for improvements in areas that other coaches might ignore, he makes sure that the focus is on the core and not the periphery: "You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus your improvements around them."
There are certain fundamentals that your team has to get right. There are also areas and improvements that are easier or more fun to work with. It might be helpful for your team to observe which areas get a lot of attention and which very little as you start working with marginal gains.
Here is one more piece of advice from Brailsford, "One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn’t work if only half the team buy in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment."
People get territorial at work as they take ownership of their projects and tasks. In addition, ideas for improvements can be interpreted as criticism and therefore result in defensive behavior. As you approach others with your 1% improvements, you might face resistance unless you get others to also identify marginal gains and share their ideas with the rest of the team.