What is the Principle of Tiny (Marginal) Gains?
This concept comes from a book by James Clear called Atomic Habits, and centers around marginal (tiny) gains. As I’ve studied this concept and even put it into practice in my own life, it actually works as advertised. It’s a human condition to think that we can only make significant progress through huge events. For example, many people believe that their only chance at significant wealth is to win the lottery or to start a wildly successful business that they later sell for an astronomical sum. In reality, a person that systematically invests a small amount of money over a large period of time will have a statistically higher chance of obtaining wealth.
A Story to Illustrate
Clear illustrates in Atomic Habits this principle with the story of the British Cycling team, circa 2003. Since 1908, the British cycling team could claim 100 years of lackluster performance. In the coveted Tour de France, Great Britain had failed to win the event even once in 110 years. Not only could they not secure a bicycle manufacture to sponsor the team, one of the top manufactures refused to even sell them bicycles because they didn’t want their brand associated with the British team.
In 2003 the program changed when Sir David Brailsford was given the job of transforming this team into a national disgrace into winning machine. Brailsford was committed to a strategy that he called “the aggregation of marginal gains”. It’s the philosophy of finding that tiny improvement or gain in every part of the program. By implementing these tiny or marginal improvements in every area of the program, The British team showed up big-time at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where they basically swept the field in gold medals. A few years later, Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to ever win the Tour de France. According to Clear’s research, the 10 year span from 2007 to 2017 is regarded as the most successful run in cycling history, with 178 world championships with 5 Tour de France championships. Great story right? This is where Clear makes the connection between a cycling team that just couldn’t pull it together, and the world that we live in.
Aggregation of Marginal Gains
When we identify high-priority parts of our business operations (I would argue that this principle applies to all areas of life, but we’ll limit it to business for this conversation) and apply marginal gains, we will see huge improvement. For example, we run a service company. No matter how we bundle and present our product, our success depends upon how well we can deliver a service. We aren’t perfect at this, but I think that’s part of the magic of this concept. You don’t have to get it perfect. The magic is in the daily efforts. There’s an old adage “Measure what you want to improve”. Now let’s take that one step further and focus on tiny, micro improve the elements of your business that are critical. Get crazy about it. In the story of the British cycling team, they hired a surgeon to come in and teach the team how to properly wash their hands so they could make a 1% improvement in the number of sick days the team had. We can also do that. Pick important areas of our businesses and dissect what makes them run and then make micro improvements. Run a few cycles and measure the small gains you are expecting. Rinse and Repeat!
Here’s James Clear’s article on his book Atomic Habits. https://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains.
The book is also a great read.
Let’s Talk About This
If you have seen success in implementing these practices, or just want to brainstorm ways to get started, please reach out. This is a passion area for me and I’m always happy to help!
With an undergraduate degree in Applied Management, a graduate degree in Business Administration and as a doctoral candidate in Organizational Psychology, let’s just say that business and leadership are Wil’s passions! He is also a small business owner who understands the rigors and joys of business building.