Marginal gains theory means making multiple simple small changes that compound to deliver huge long-term benefits. Popularised by Sir Dave Brailsford via great success at GB Cycling, Team Sky and Team Ineos, marginal gains are not just for elite athletes - we can all use them to increase performance in all areas of life
What are marginal gains?
Also known as the ‘1% principle’, marginal gains theory has its roots in the Japanese system of improvement called Kaizen which means “change for better”.
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The term originated with the intention of helping business owners eliminate ‘waste’ and tighten up processes to optimise output. It has since been widely used in healthcare, government strategy, banking and sports performance.
Sir Dave Brailsford brought the term into the modern lexicon became fascinated by kaizen as an MBA student.
Sir Clive Woodward also used the idea as part of his overhaul of English Rugby leading to the historic 2003 World Cup win. Perhaps Woodward's only error was calling them 'critical non-essentials' or CNEs, which was nowhere near as catchy as 'marginal gains'.
Dave Brailsford and marginal gains
Brailsford joined British Cycling in 2003, when UK cycling was in a sorry state. Since 1908, GB Cycling had won just one Olympic, and in 110 years of Tour de France, no British rider had ever won.
British Cycling, rather more successful now than it was in 2003
Fast forward 17 years and the picture is rather different:
- 2008 Beijing Olympics – GB won 60% of the cycling medals up for grabs
- 2012 London Olympics – 8 Gold, 2 Silver, 2 Bronze, 9 Olympic records, 7 World Records
- 2016 Rio Olympics – 6 Gold, 4 Silver and 1 Bronze
And the Tour de France?
Well, Brailsford and Team Sky masterminded not just the first British victory there ever (Bradley Wiggins, 2012) but then six more in the next seven years (Froome, 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, Thomas 2018, Bernal 2019).
How can marginal gains make such a difference?
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Brailsford provides insight into his inspiration for adopting the theory. Instead of focusing on outcomes; “increase 20-min power to X”, “lose X kg” or “win the Tour de France”, he would drill down instead to the minutiae that would - over time - reap big gains.
Marginal gains played a big part in Geraint Thomas’ Tour de France win in 2018
Under his direction, Team Sky optimised their lives like never seen before and even had each cyclist’s mattresses transported everywhere they went to improve quality of sleep - and hence recovery.
Time in the wind tunnel increased as one-watt aero gains were searched for, comprehensive warm-downs were introduced and pineapple juice was added to water to make absorption of minerals easier.
Alone, none would have made much difference to an Olympic campaign. Together they helped raise British cycling to the top of the world.
Why make marginal changes?
If there are opportunities to make large scale changes - whether in your business, athletic ability or relationships - it’s worth paying attention to those first.
But where do you go next?
By making many small, 1% optimisations, you’ll find a huge compound effect and all without the risk or major upheaval compared to large scale changes.
Marginal gains can reap huge long-term benefits in a business environment
This can be seen in everyday life, a bit like investment banking billions: one massive cash windfall (the lottery) is less likely than being hit by lightning but building billions by the yearly compounding of tiny percentages over decades is going on everywhere daily.
One brilliant article by Matthew Syed - author of 'The Greatest, Bounce and Black Box Thinking' – highlights the profound impact of marginal gains in both sports performance and wider industries like healthcare, aviation and life.
If you’re interested in making habitual changes, listen to our conversation with environmental psychologist Dr Ian Walker. He explains how to create powerful habits that stick – it’s well worth a listen if you want to make changes big or small.
How to employ marginal gains yourself
It’s easy to think that in order to make massive change – as many of us are keen to do – one needs to take drastic action.
- Want to lose weight? ‘I need to overhaul my entire nutrition strategy’ (aka, ‘I’m going to throw myself headfirst into the latest diet fad’)
- Want to grow your business by 30%? ‘I must double my work hours’
- Want to spend more time with the family? ‘I’m going to go part-time’
- Want to get fit? ‘I need to triple my training hours’
Adopting this approach applies massive pressure to alter big parts of our lives. And if we don’t? Well, we’ve failed.
Employ marginal gains and you could find yourself with more time for family & friends
The effort required to make small, seemingly insignificant changes is miniscule but can still lead to the same outcome.
Rather than looking for one huge win (‘I’m going to run every day for a year / lose three stone / grow my business 10x' etc), instead address the hundreds of tiny wins we can grab daily:
- Instead of taking the escalator, take the stairs
- Instead of that extra pint have a soda water
- Instead of the ice cream for dessert, have fruit
- Instead of meat in every meal, have an all-veg meal twice per week
- Instead of trying to lose three stone, aim for one
- Instead of going part-time to spend more time with the kids, switch your phone off by 6pm
There are hundreds of these to be capitalised upon every single day, it just requires awareness.
Each may only be a drop in the ocean, but compound four or five effortless decisions like this daily – that's over 2,000 in a year – and they'll grow a life of their own, compounding into truly life-altering changes.
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