“It is so easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements daily.”
James Clear Atomic Habits
In recent years the aggregation of marginal gains has been popularised by the work that Dave Brailsford carried out so successfully when he was the head of British Cycling.
In 2010, Dave Brailsford faced a tough challenge in a tough job.
At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain had endured almost a century of mediocrity. Since 1908, British riders had only achieved a single gold medal at the Olympic Games. In the Tour de France – the most famous road cycling race in the world – things were even worse; in 110 years, no British cyclist had ever won.
When Brailsford took over, it was rumoured that the lacklustre performance of British riders had been so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they thought it would negatively affect their brand.
Small improvements add up to big gains
As the new General Manager and Performance Director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team), Brailsford was tasked to transform the situation. At first glanced this appeared to be an impossible task, but his approach was elementary. Brailsford was convinced of the merits of a concept that he referred to as the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, positing it as a ‘1% margin for improvement in everything you do’.
He believed that if you improved everything by just 1%, then those small gains would combine to affect exceptional improvement. And as we all know, it worked!
Brailsford and his team began by optimising the things you might expect: the nutrition of riders, their weekly training programme, the ergonomics of the bike seat, and the weight of the tires. But they didn’t stop there. They searched for 1% improvements in every small area that were overlooked by almost everyone else. This included working out which pillow offered riders the best sleep and taking it with them to hotels. They taught riders how to wash their hands to avoid infection. They tested for the most effective type of massage gel – they searched for 1% improvements anywhere and everywhere.
The 1% improvements paid off quicker than anticipated
Brailsford believed that if they could successfully execute this strategy, then Team Sky would be able to win the Tour de France within five years. However, his initial predictions were wrong – victory was theirs in just three years!
In 2012, Team Sky rider Sir Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. That same year, Brailsford coached the British cycling team at the 2012 Olympic Games where the team won 70% of the gold medals available. In 2013, Team Sky replicated their success by winning the Tour de France again, this time with rider Chris Froome who went on to win a further three times.
Many have referred to the British Cycling team’s efforts in the Olympics and the Tour de France over the past ten years as the most successful period in modern cycling history.
Between 2007 and 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals, and five Tour de France victories (with a sixth victory for Geraint Thomas in 2018) in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.
You don’t have to be a cyclist to benefit from the aggregation of marginal gains
The marginal gains approach that Brailsford so successfully deployed in UK Cycling applies to any walk of life and works for any skill, knowledge, attitude, experience or relationships. In the sales world, we can use marginal gains when evaluating our own professional development and identifying areas for improvement. And it’s something you can do for yourself. Review each of the aspects below in order to see if a marginal gain can be added to any or all of them. By increasing our skills, knowledge, and insights by even a small amount, we have the capability of making great strides forward:
- Account planning
- Sales process
- Value-based proposition
- Presentation skills
- Negotiations skills
- Solution selling methodologies and processes
- Qualification tools
- Product /service knowledge
- Competitor knowledge
- CRM (and other supporting systems) knowledge
- Sales tools (playbooks, presentations, replicable business models)
- Time management
- Questioning and listening skills
- Internal resources you can draw on effectively engage with
Marginal gains can also be applied to aspects of mindset:
- Emotional intelligence
- Work-life balance
- Mental wellbeing
In fact, the marginal gains theory is a recurring theme of Thriving Sales Professional Framework, which will soon be available as an online, on-demand service. Every tool, technique and mental construct that makes up the framework can benefit from marginal gains. It is only by constant reflection that we can ensure we present the very best of ourselves to our daily activities, challenges, and opportunities.