Marginal Gains: much more than just soundbites?

Updated: Sep 24, 2018

There is just a little bit more in everyone

There’s been a lot of talk about marginal gains in sports but the burning question is – how do those gains translate on the pitch, track or gym? Furthermore how are they achieved and can they actually be utilised in our everyday working lives? As a business owner are they going to be enough to transform my enterprise into a highly profitable business and beyond?

Well lets start at the start: if you are the All Blacks or Christiano Ronaldo its not exactly easy to up your game by 50% just because you want to be better. A far more feasible methodology is to break down your game into say 100 moving parts and then try and get a small incremental gain in each facet with the net result equating to a large overall aggregate gain. For example Dave Brailsford’s achievements with the BSkyB cycling team were all attributed to making marginal gains in his team’s performance. By focusing entirely upon tiny improvements every single day in each part of the team’s make-up he managed to make a massive improvement overall.

Every process, component, piece of kit, KPI – in short everything – was driven to improve by a factor of 1% at a time. And what results he achieved for BSkyB by optimising everything from the diet and nutrition programme of the riders to the ergonomics of the bicycle seat, from training programs to footwear – even discovering what gave his riders a better night’s sleep or the best hand washing techniques to avoid infection.

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In 2012, Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British winner of the Tour de France. Brailsford’s other charges, the British Cycling Team won 70% of the total available gold medals under the same regime as BSkyB. These were two separate teams in different cycling disciplines – surely no coincidence and they both achieved unparalleled and unexpected success.

Another sporting leader Sir Clive Woodward enjoyed a similar success with the England Rugby Team by utilising the process of aggregating marginal gains to win the Rugby World Cup in 2003. “If you go into every aspect of what you do and break it down and improve those things by 1%, it all adds up,” he said, “In rugby, we understand all the parameters – let’s break it down into as much detail as possible and try and do every bit of it slightly better than anyone else.

“It has to become part of your culture,” Sir Clive added “You have to be always doing it and just because you’ve improved something one day doesn’t mean you can’t improve it the next.”

The ever improving All Blacks

“These ideas can come from anywhere, not just you as a leader,” he explained. “What we’ve got really good at is having other people from other areas coming in and looking at what we’re doing. It’s understanding that it’s not just using your own people, it’s using other people who you like and respect and are bright enough to look in and you’d be amazed at these new thoughts and new ideas. That’s what high-performing teams do.”

So how does this all equate to the working world and getting better business results whether in marketing, sales or finance and how do you make a start? Introducing this methodology can potentially be troublesome, particularly when there is already an entrenched way of doing things in place at an organisation.

Perhaps a good place to start, particularly with its acute focus on data is marketing. Conversion rate optimisation, lead optimisation metrics, email open rates, landing pages, social media followers – the inbound marketer should already be firmly focussed on improving his/her metrics. Extending this focus by using a ‘marginal gains approach’ means they should be concentrating on those little 1% improvements that might normally be overlooked.

This is the optimisation mind-set that must be engendered by the company’s leaders. You could do worse than start by making a list of all your processes and workflows that could potentially be optimised. Let’s have a look at another area – sales – the life-blood of any business. Lets imagine you are an SME with 10 sales heads each of whom are carrying a £1,000,000 sales target. That’s an annual target of £10,000,000 so a marginal gain of 1% or £100,000 by just getting a better process would probably be quite handy. Lets look at a few of the possible areas where companies could squeeze those gains:

  • Sales strategy: focus on getting 1% better by targeting a more accurate customer profile.

  • Team structure, people roles and responsibilities: getting new hires to hit the ground running 1% quicker

  • Developing competency, skills and attitudes: articulating and presenting the value proposition 1% better

  • Make the right deal choices: ‘qualifying in’ 1% better and working on winnable deals

  • Sales performance coaching: improving confidence in engaging senior management by 1%

  • Forecasting: say no more

There are plenty more gains to be had in sales but you get the idea. Once we spread the process through operations and finance and it starts to take hold then we should really be cooking on gas. Just imagine the marginal gains that could be had from improving the CEOs presentational skills – only joking!

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