The story of Dave Brailsford provides a perfect example of the power of taking many small steps. Sir Dave Brailsford explained his “marginal gains” approach in a Harvard Business Review article in 2015. Brailsford was hired as Head of British Cycling by the British Cycling Organization in 2002. Professional cyclists in Great Britain had been getting mediocre results since the organization’s beginnings in 1908.
Since 1908, only one British cyclist had won a gold medal at any of the Olympic Games’ cycling categories, and no cyclists had ever won the most important race on the road cycling calendar: The Tour de France. The performance of British cyclists was so bad that one bike manufacturer even stopped selling bikes to the British team, fearing it would hurt sales.
Brailsford — a former professional cyclist, who also holds an MBA — was hired to change momentum and herald the start of a new, successful era. He brought a new strategy called “the aggregation of marginal gains.” Inspired by the Kaizen method, this strategy involved finding tiny improvements in all aspects of performance.
“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.”
The first small adjustments were not so shocking: changing seats to enhance comfort; changing tires for better grip; changing gear boxes for smoother changes; testing various suits in wind tunnels to find the ideal racing suit.
Brailsford’s adjustments continued to find 1% improvements in areas that were overlooked in the past: testing massage gels to find the ones that best helped recovery, and testing pillows that give the best night’s sleep. The cyclists received hand-washing training from a surgeon to avoid illness during competition, and even painted the inside of the team’s truck white — to prevent dust from getting in the bikes.
As hundreds of these small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than even Brailsford himself could have predicted.
Five years after Brailsford took his position, the British Cycling team dominated the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games on all road and track cycling events. The team won 60% of all gold medals available — eight out of 14 gold medals. Four years later, at the London Olympic Games, the British team set seven world records and nine Olympic records.
In that same year, Bradley Wiggins became the first ever Brit to win the Tour de France. The following year, his teammate, Chris Froome, won the event. Froome went on to win it again three years after that, giving the British team five Tour de France wins in six years.
During the ten years Brailsford was in the job, British cyclists won five Tour de France victories, 66 Olympic and Paralympic gold medals, and 178 cycling world championships.
How did this happen on a team that previously only had mediocre results? How did these ordinary athletes turn into world champions? Why do small improvements accumulate in such astonishing ways? And how can you apply this to your personal life?
Aggregation of marginal gains
We often underestimate the value of making small improvements on a regular basis and overestimate the importance of big defining moments. We convince ourselves that impressive success requires impressive action. Whatever the goal is, we put pressure on ourselves to make grand improvements that will leave everyone in awe.
Improving things by 1% is not very noticeable, but it can be very meaningful. The effects tiny improvements can have in the long run are amazing. And the math behind it is simple. If you get 1% better every day, after one year, you have become 37 times better than you were at the start. What starts as small win accumulates into something a lot bigger.
The impact of marginal gains
When you start, there is a small difference between getting 1% better or 1% worse. It will not affect you very much in the short term. But as time goes one, these small chances combine into a big difference between people who make slight improvements daily and those who don’t.
This is also the reason why it doesn’t matter all that much if you slip up once or twice or make a mistake. If you don’t make a habit of it, it won’t make much difference in the long run. Set yourself up for failure — it’s part of the process. Keep in mind that a lot of small improvements outweigh a few misses.
Another big benefit from marginal gains, according to Sir Brailsford, is the creation of contagious enthusiasm. In the context of the British cycling team, it motivated everyone to contribute and look for ways to improve. For an individual, finding a new opportunity to get better helps propel the momentum of self-improvement.
Chances are, you probably won’t win an Olympic gold medal or the Tour de France. But the concept of aggregating marginal gains can still be useful.
Most people talk about success as if it is a single event. We talk about losing 20 pounds, or building a successful company, as if it were a single, isolated achievement. But these things aren’t stand-alone events — they are the sum of all the little improvements made along the way: the aggregated gains.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains principle used by Brailsford is inspired by the Kaizen method. Kaizen, Japanese for improvement, refers to a philosophy that focuses on continuous process improvement in manufacturing, engineering, and business management. It’s frequently used in the business world, but the concept has huge value for anyone who wants to build better habits and reach their goals.
Research on motivation has shown that people resist extreme change. If something happens too quickly, we feel threatened. There are a lot of ways to successfully make extreme changes, but those require a fair amount of discipline.
This is exactly why the Kaizen method is so popular. This method acknowledges that business, people, and processes that make changes slowly and steadily end up better off in the long run than those who attempt to make extreme changes quickly.
The idea here is to focus on consistent improvements in your life, every day — no matter how small the step, you try to be better than you were yesterday. According to Brett and Kate McKay, authors of “The Art of Manliness”:
“Instead of trying to make radical changes in a short amount of time, just make small improvements every day that will gradually lead to the change you want. Each day just focus on getting 1% better in whatever it is you’re trying to improve. That’s it. Just 1%.
It might not seem like much, but those 1% improvements start compounding on each other. In the beginning, your improvements will be so small as to seem practically nonexistent. But gradually and ever so slowly, you’ll start to notice the improvements in your life. It may take months or even years, but the improvements will come if you just focus on consistently upping your game by 1%.”
Why Kaizen works
The Kaizen approach is a reminder that all improvements must be maintained if we want to make consistent gains. Think of a small step you can take every day, and you will gradually move toward success. John Wooden explains this way:
“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made. Don’t look for the big, quick improvement. Seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens — and when it happens, it lasts.”
Becoming 1% better seems like a small amount, and it is. But it’s also a do-able improvement. It feels less intimidating and is more manageable. By continuously achieving your 1% growth, you work up to big things.