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Aggregation of marginal gains

A cycling revolution in which we can all take part

Dave Brailsford, Performance Director of British Cycling, is a coach almost without peer, having turned the UK into the number one cycling nation.  His successes include the last two Olympics, winning 7 out of the 10 golds at both and then helping Bradley Wiggins become the first UK winner of the Tour de France in its 99th year.  Aside from selecting the best talent available, he puts down his success to something called the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.  Put simply, when you are at the highest level of competition the difference between winning and losing is down to a single minded and meticulous focus on the little things, minor details that most people might over look.  As a group of keen cyclists at DMW, we know this simple message can equally be applied to our work and those of our clients.

When most organisations consider making improvements, the result is often major change programmes.  These can be large, complex and costly, resulting in armies of people, many required just to manage the programme itself.  Whilst large programmes are sometimes necessary, it is our experience that organisations frequently spend insufficient time working out what small changes can be made that, when built layer on layer, lead to significant improvements.  Equally, if you are already a top quartile performer, then just as in the cycling example, what will mark you out is the attention to improving those little details that put you at the top of your game.

So how do you start aggregating your marginal gains?  Firstly, as with in any change, your need support from the top.  Senior management must sponsor the initiative, and the leadership team must embody the concept, demonstrating how they themselves have made marginal improvements.  This example, from the top, then needs to be pushed down to teams at all layers of the organisation.  Team meetings should put aside time on their regular agenda to firstly discuss ideas, select the best few and then track their implementation.  The organisation should support the concept by tracking all the small ideas and their results, publicly recognising the best in some appropriate form.

The ideas should focus on all areas of the business, covering technology, people and process.  In the technology space, we have provided examples in the past, such as the somewhat surprising idea that turning up the temperature in your data centre improves system reliability and clearly also saves energy and reduces CO2.  In the people area, psychologists have proven that happy people are more productive.  What is rather more counterintuitive is that research has shown that if you force yourself to smile or laugh it actually improves your mood.  So a tiny change could be a deliberate light-hearted, smile-invoking agenda item at the start of every the meeting.  In process terms, aside from obviously including the marginal gains idea into your processes, borrow an idea from IT project management and adopt risk-based testing spending proportionately more effort testing around the main areas of risk.

The concept of aggregation of marginal gains is clearly a successful approach.  It has the ability to create sustainable improvements at low cost.  It is an approach that we DMW cycling fans whole heartedly support and have used at our clients and internally.