This is a 3-part series on sustainable change. In my experience January is a great month for understanding what doesn't work for personal change, at least change that lasts. It at least helps to identify intention, which can be re-booted now for change that is sustainable and successful. In the first part of the series published last Monday, we looked at environmental design. Here, we look at marginal gains.
“Ha, ha, no chance!” The year was 2006, and I was sitting with British Cycling President Brian Cookson in Girona’s Plaza Independencia. Sipping on an ice-cold, and well-deserved clara after a fine four hours cycling around the smooth roads of Baix Empordà, I listened for his reply: “Well, that’s quite a common reaction, but we’re going to do it.” Brian had just shared the main strategic goal for British Cycling—simple and startling: a British winner of the Tour de France within five years, something that no one had really gotten near in over a century of the famous annual cycling race. Today, almost 10 years after that conversation with Brian, now President of the UCI, and Brits have won three of the last four editions.
Emboldened by such a grand goal, it was Road Cycling’s 'little brother', Track Cycling, which helped sharpen the strategy for sustainable change and performance. Track cycling is actually the more popular sport in many countries, with the explosive speeds and heavy reliance on tactics attracting thousands of people to velodromes, from Belgium to Japan. Unlike the better known road cycling mode, which has its annual mecca to the Tour de France, the benchmark level of success is the Olympic Games with nations doing battle for scarce gold medals every four years, often decided by fractions of a second.
Great Britain had traditionally been a mediocre performer on the Track at the Olympics, winning their first Gold Medal in almost 100 years at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Yet this was not quite the starting gun for continued success. Countries such as France and Australia would continue to dominate in Atlanta in 1996 and in Sydney in 2000. Yet in those Sydney Games, Great Britain won its second gold in those hundred odd years and things were starting to gain momentum behind the scenes.
In Athens in 2004, two gold medals were procured, one of them from “flying Scot” Chris Hoy in a breathtaking performance in the “kilo” (an against the clock time-trial where riders complete four laps of the velodrome, 1000 meters, as fast as possible). The blue touch paper had been lit, and Great Britain would go on to dominate the Beijing games by winning eight gold medals. (Hoy won three of those and was the first British man in more than 100 years to win triple gold.) The nearest challenger, France, won only two. That success was sustained in the London games with another eight. 16 gold medals in two Olympic Games, where only one had been won in more than 100 years. Unprecedented success by any country in Olympic track cycling history (see table below).
So how did they do it? The cyclists, right? Champions like Hoy. Yet France and Australia and the rest of the nations also have these star athletes. What about technology? It is true that Great Britain worked with Formula 1 team McLaren to perfect its bicycle performance through wind-tunnel testing, as well as with clothing manufacturer Adidas to improve the aerodynamic nature of the cyclists clothing, yet many other countries would do the same.
What I’d like to focus on is another man, Matt Parker, the Director of Marginal Gains.
Essentially, Team GB recognized that if the difference between success and failure, between winning those gold medals and perhaps not even making the podium, came down to the width of a tyre wheel, to the thousandth of a second, on such tiny fractions—that they should look for advantage also in those tiny fractions. And so began a maniacal focus on every conceivable possible advantage, no matter how small.
The bicycle tyres would be rubbed down with alcohol after each ride, in order to remove any particles of dust. Collaboration was exploited with Formula 1, but not in the traditional sense. The material that is used for the F1 car tyres to keep them at the optimum temperature was used to make trousers for the riders! who would wear them between rounds in the velodrome—even if only for ten minutes. Riders were also instructed to take their own pillow with them when traveling abroad, to maximize their chances of a good night’s sleep and prevent any possibilities of waking up with a neck injury. They also examined the bus timetable at the Beijing Olympics and believed there wasn’t enough time to recover for their athletes by using the official Olympic transport from the velodrome to the athletes’ village. The time was only about 20 minutes but enough in their view to make a difference. So they contracted their own bus company to ferry their own cyclists between both locations, the only country to do so.
But perhaps the best of all: They taught their Olympic cyclists how to wash their hands.
They got one of the leading surgeons in the world, from a hospital in London, to teach them how to wash their hands. Team GB found out that no matter how thoroughly we think we wash our hands, we tend to neglect the area on the back of the thumb— where many pathogens can live that could result in a person catching a cold, a virus, and make those Olympic cyclists a couple thousandths of a second slower—the difference between success and failure.
So did Team GB win 16 gold medals in two Olympic Games, having won only one in more than a hundred years—unprecedented domination in the history of Olympic Track Cycling—because they knew how to wash their hands better than countries like France and Australia?
Maybe. Maybe not. Does it matter exactly where the concrete advantage came from? The key was an impressive, exhaustive focus on improving every single aspect of their operation, and they believed that all of them together would make the difference. Hence the driving strategy: the cumulative effect of marginal gains.
So what is the practical takeaway for you? That you wash your hands more thoroughly? Maybe it is. Especially if you have a high incidence of catching the cold. A metalevel research study by the Canadian Medical Association Journal in January of 2014 brought together more than 20 years of research into the common cold. How to catch it less often, and when you do, how do you spend less time with it. The big conclusion? You guessed it, hand washing!
But on a more general level how may we apply marginal gains to business and the challenge of sustainable change? Just as in sport, I believe that the difference between winning and losing, between getting that promotion or not, or winning that new client, comes down to the fractions. In a democratized age, we are all well prepared, knowledgeable, and driven, to an equitable extent unlikely matched in human history.
I believe marginal gain theory to have a potentially massive impact, and we have seen this with our clients for several years. We use a design thinking approach to uncover the hidden, powerful insights that give the about-face in a busy professional’s health and performance. For example, we recently worked with a banking executive on the excessive fatigue experienced soon after a promotion. The first marginal gain concerned the daily routine, and specifically the commute to work, for years unchanged as a 25-minute journey on a moped in heavy city traffic. With the increase in quality and quantity of decisions in the new role we identified the issue of decision fatigue as being a key factor, with much of that precious decision-making energy being used on a stressful (though accustomed) morning commute. We replaced the moped journey with a scheduled daily private taxi, allowing the executive to spend some free time, arrive at the office relaxed and with decision-making energy at optimum levels.
We are always looking at the big picture; the 5-year plan, our purpose, even the financial year. Being mired in the operational details can adversely affect good strategic management, but we have found the details, especially those traditionally considered innocuous or unimportant, to be a rich source of powerful change in a professional life.
So how could you start implementing marginal gains as part of an overall strategy for sustainable change?