Marginal Gains theory: What I learnt from Sergio Alvarez Leiva in one of our talks about product mindset.
If you don´t know Sergio here a couple of highlights, he was co-founder and head of product at CARTO and he recently led digital product strategy at ZARA.com. We are lucky to have Sergio as one of our advisors at Minimum.run because every time we talk to him we learn new things.
After our talk with Sergio, I was so fascinated about Marginal Gains technique that I decided to research more about it and share the story because I think many of us can learn from it. He explained us how coach Dave Brailsford applied the marginal gains technique to take an olympic bicycle team from no medals to over 150 Gold medal and how this technique could be applied in digital products and teams.
Even if you don´t like bycicle competitions or olympic teams, you can find many takeaways from this story that you can apply either in your personal or professional life.
After researching the experience of David Brailsford more in detail, I put together this post that explains how he was able to transform a regular team into the World Champion. At the end of the post, I also explain how we are starting to apply Marginal Gains at Minimum.run.
Here is the story:
Until early 2000, British cycling had only won one gold medal in over 100 years. The sole gold medal they won dated way back to the year 1908. Winning a gold medal was never even an expectation from the team.
Actually, the performance of the team was so poor that sponsors and sellers hesitated to sell their product to the British cycling team because it could impact in their sales due to the negative impression.
Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for a better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated over shorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout. The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic.
Brailsford didn´t stop there and he continued adding changes to the team:
- They tried a wide range of massage gels for the best muscle recovery.
- They hired a surgeon to teach the sportsmen how to wash their hands to avoid a cold.
- They handpicked pillows and mattresses for optimal sleep.
- The chef had to account for the ingredients used while cooking.
- The coach had the floor painted white to notice any specks of dust which could hamper bike maintenance.
The team analyzed the power with which the prior winning teams took off the line. The best member to achieve or beat this benchmark trained specifically for giving the perfect start.
The performance crew measured the statistics of each member and tabulated the values against the numbers expected. The team had to replace a few team members who could not meet the desired result. Brailsford mentioned, they made tough decisions as compassionate as possible.
These changes did not start yielding results right-away. Though the team won a few medals in the 2004 Olympics, the difference was too subtle to deserve any major applause. A few years passed by and other countries noticed Britain improving but no one could predict what the team was about to achieve.
Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.
That same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, his teammate Chris Froome won the race, and he would go on to win again in 2015, 2016, and 2017, giving the British team five Tour de France victories in six years.
During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.
So from not winning anything to suddenly beating world records and world championships awards.
How does this happen and we can apply it?
The coach created history by taking his time to incorporate the 1% better method, also called the marginal gains technique. The procedure is simple on paper. You just have to do a little better with time.
The 1% does not state a precise number measured as a figure. All it means is, you must focus on doing something better than what you did before.
How most people try to achieve results:
You might have a habit of expecting results as per the sequence above. You try your hand at something, wait for results, try some more, notice no results and give up. But the British cycling team kept improving even when they saw no results. That is where the key difference lies – continuous improvement even the results do not show up.
How Dave Brailsford tried to achieve results
Brailsford was well aware that the results would take time to arrive. All his team needed to do was persist until the power of tiny gains showed up with flying colors.
As per 1% better technique, you must keep improving without expecting results. Over time, the improvement produces a compound effect placing you in a different league altogether.
But the normal tendency is to overlook the simple improvements as insignificant. You presume the change or action to be too simple to make an impact.
But what is simple to do is simpler to not do. And that is what usually happens with most.
People end up hunting for huge gains in one go while ignoring the minor tweaks which would produce results over time. The marginal gains technique approaches improvement like a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not about running with all your energy in a short burst but having the patience and stamina to keep going for the long haul.
¨Forget about perfection; focus on progression and compound the improvement. They’re tiny things but if you clump them together, they make a big difference.¨ Dave Brailsford
The returns from marginal gains follow a trajectory like shown below. Assume you improve a little every day while your friend adds a little to his laziness at the same pace. Initially, the changes seem like nothing.
All your effort looks to be going down the drain. You might consider is the effort even worth it because the other person seems no different than you.
But wait for it, the effect of the tiny improvements will arrive outstandingly. Sure, it can take a year or two but when you’ll know when you get there. The difference will widen if the other person worsens a little each day.
This is how we are starting to apply Tiny Gains at Minimum.run:
- Process: We are obsessed to improve our shape and build process, roadmap and delivery time/quality in every single project. We review it almost every week.
- Finding solutions: Our team always think that we can always continue learning to improve the process by learning from new technologies, methodologies and many others things. There is no challenge that we are not eager to solve.
- Automation: We try to automate as more as we can to be more productive.
- Products: Digital products for us are always live and evolve everyday, they can always be improved. There is no a perfect product. We believe analytics are key to measure improvements.
- Experimentation is iterative, we evolve our product/service as we learn more from the nocode business and our customers. We build continuously hypothesis and metrics of success.
- Tools: We train our teams to understand the software and tools we use. We don’t just train them to do their tasks on it. More knowledge will increase the chances to improve our workflow.
- Clients: Ask all the time feedback to clients, team and advisors.
- Business: We control and always try to improve our finance, processes, branding, methodologies, team communication and many other things.
- Speed: Always learning from new tools and processes to speed up any workflows.
- Collaboration: We are obsessed sharing internally and documenting everything to keep teaching our team members and customers.
During my research about marginal gains, I also found an interesting and similar concept called Kaizen. Kaizen (改善) is a Japanese term meaning "change for the better" or "continuous improvement." It is a Japanese business philosophy regarding the processes that continuously improve operations and involve all employees. Kaizen sees improvement in productivity as a gradual and methodical process. In case you want to learn more about Kaizen, you can check these articles:
- The Japanese Philosophy of Kaizen can improve your life in 3 easy steps
- Get Better at Getting Better: The Kaizen Productivity philosophy
We will continue adding more elements to our Marginal Gains and keep teaching it to our customers and partners.