The big value in small changes

How a one percent margin can make a 100% difference. Delving into the world of marginal gains...

By: Wyl,   3 minutes


I’m often inspired by the work our clients do, by the approaches they take and the important ideas they spread. When one of these approaches got itself lodged inside my head recently, I decided to explore it a little further to see where it would lead.

Investors in People, an organisation we’ve been working with for two years now, recently launched their Outperformance campaign. The campaign was fronted by Dave Brailsford, the coach who led the British cycling team to huge wins in the Tour de France and the 2012 Olympics, achieving a level of success that surprised even ardent supporters.

“There’s a one per cent margin for improvement in everything you do.”

Brailsford’s approach was based around the idea there’s a one per cent margin for improvement in everything you do. If the one percent part sounds small, that’s the point. The bit you need to pay attention to is the everything.

Brailsford theorised if everyone in the team was constantly looking for the tiniest improvements and implementing them, the gains would add up over time. These disaggregated, disparate, tiny improvements would clump together and improve performance in a manner that would far outweigh the size of each individual improvement. And it worked.

The example most people talk about when discussing Team Sky’s success is each team member taking their own pillow with them when they were on tour. The theory is this small change, sleeping on your own pillow rather than putting up with whatever pillow the hotel uses, will mean a slightly better night’s sleep, and therefore slightly better performance on the track in the morning. On its own, not a huge improvement, hardly one to bother with really. But alongside the thousands of other tiny improvements in diet, training and routines and tiny refinements to each component on the bike, the effects were huge.

What does it mean for you?
Think about your own area of work, whatever that is. Forget, for a minute, about the big changes you want to make, the ones that seem insurmountable. And instead, think of something small you can do right now. A tiny change you could make to improve the efficiency of the next task you’ve got to carry out.

“Think of a small improvement you can make right now.”

As a writer, I’m always looking for improvements, but I tend to look for the big things to change. I read Chekhov and marvel at the void that lies between my writing and his. I just don’t know where to start when I take that approach. Taking Brailsford’s approach though, there are definitely tiny changes I can make right now.

What did it mean for me?
Some of the tiny improvements I’ve made today:

  • Cut down checking my emails to once an hour (as opposed to once every five to ten minutes). I know task switching is hugely detrimental to productivity, yet I check emails as they come in, almost regardless of what I’m working on.
  • Worked through each item on my next actions list regardless of whether I want to avoid it or not. I figure those small items that I always end up writing on my list each morning because I’ve not done them the day before are probably causing me a tiny drag, taking up a bit of unnecessary mental space.
  • Set up my desk before I started working. A few seconds less scrabbling for a pen has to be a good thing.
  • Cut out social media until lunchtime. I don’t know how long that one will last.

Once you get started, making tiny improvements becomes addictive, and over the day I identified about twenty more, just by considering everything I was doing, as I was doing it.

And once you’re committed to it you start seeing tiny improvements you could make all over the place. The changes I made today were fairly small. And did I see a massive difference? In all honesty, no. I can’t expect them to have a massive effect immediately. Come back to me in a couple of months time though and I’ll tell you how it’s worked.

So what’s the one small improvement you can make today? I bet there’s one staring up at you right now. I bet there are ten staring at you if you look around.

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