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  • Writer's pictureHarvey Hillary

The Marginal Gains Myth

Updated: Jun 22, 2018

It is safe to say the concept of Marginal Gains has gone viral in the sporting and business world but is this merely another example of the spin doctors up selling

an ideal or is there a real benefit to be gained from using the strategy originally perfected by British Cycling.

Having been in charge of innovation and marginal gains strategies within elite sport, I would put forward the argument that ‘marginal gains’ is ‘A’ strategy but not ‘The’ strategy when looking to develop competitive advantage. 

Developing Competitive Advantage

A Marginal Gains Strategy represents the “aggregation of 1% gains in order to deliver a significant performance advantage”. I would add that in isolation those interventions would not deliver a tangible performance gain hence the 'aggregation' is key. 

I believe that many individuals, teams & organisations are not ready to go marginal, that specific unacceptable weaknesses are limiting their performance and that a singular Maximal Gains intervention would have the biggest impact on their performance.

Often, the most effective way of developing competitive advantage is through innovation; that is the ability to think differently and deliver novel solutions to performance problems. Marginal gains can be wrongfully championed for a performance gain when actually it comes through a singular innovation intervention.

Let’s use the British Skeleton team as an example. This team have innovated their way to a world-leading position through equipment, training and talent ID. Also, Brawn F1 racing - they developed an innovative double diffuser and that enabled Jenson Button to win his only World Championship.

So, when can a marginal gain make a difference?

Let us revisit the definition “aggregation of 1% gains to enhance performance”.

In reality, when this strategy has been most effective, we are more likely to be talking about 0.1% aggregations to make a 1% performance impact. For that to be the correct ‘choice’, you must have confidence that the ‘maximal gains’ and ‘innovation’ gains have already been addressed.

Here is a question for you:

Is my system, process, equipment, team, technique, already as good as the world-leading example in every facet?

If Yes –  look at marginal gains.

If No – then can you copy the world’s best and/or create a world-leading hybrid?

3 great examples of marginal gains making a credible difference:

  • British Cycling (Olympic) - Having established world-leading standards of physiological capacity, technical execution, psychology to deliver under pressure – British Cycling set about maintaining their world-leading advantage by exploiting marginal gains. The primary focus was reducing drag and delivering what I would call ‘performance efficiency’.

  • Mercedes F1 - To a point, I could use any high performing F1 team as an exemplar, but let’s use the 2016 Formula 1 Constructors Champion. In an interesting quote from the executive director of Mercedes F1, Toto Wolf said: “we are maxed out on performance at the end of a regulation cycle and when that happens everything becomes more marginal”. What Toto is saying is that all their innovation and maximal gains occur early on, at the beginning of the regulation cycle or to a smaller extent at the start of each year. From then on, any gains are about ‘Super Refinement’ and ‘Iterative Improvement’. While other teams are playing catch-up to recover from design mistakes (forced upon them trying to catch Mercedes), Mercedes are meanwhile making further 0.1% gains in every aero, mechanical & human component and process.

  • University Hospital Wales –  Matthew Syed uses the example of Virginia Mason Hospital's work in reducing infection and eliminating mistakes in his bestseller ‘Black Box Thinking’. I would like to highlight the work of Williams F1 in helping the hospital refine its equipment and handover routines in the 'Pit stop’ resuscitation project. Role clarity and team dynamics under intense time pressure were targeted to speed up processes for resuscitating newborn babies and make a life-saving difference.

When not to use Marginal Gains?

The biggest danger in deploying a marginal gains strategy is the high cost, for a comparatively small performance gain. 

Here I have listed three examples of marginal gains not working as well as they should have:

  • Sky Cycling (in year one) - Sir David Brailsford had perfected marginal gains in the GB Olympic Cycling Squad and he was keen to use it for his five-year plan to win the Tour de France. Sky deployed their ‘secret squirrel’ approach to road racing with high-profile innovations such as – aero suits, aero bikes, a customised team bus, Jaguar chase cars, individualised travel mattresses and pillows. The problem was the team was not quite ready to go marginal. The maximal gains for Sky were in the capabilities of the domestiques and super-domestiques to manage the peloton & protect their General Classification rider.

  • The England Football Team – We are forever fed stories about the England’s team fancy hotel, their incredible training facilities, the last-minute addition of Steve Peter’s chimp management techniques, etc. However, I believe the England Football team has one major unacceptable weakness that will prevent them from delivering a Championship success. Any number of marginal gains strategies will not change this. The problem they have is that their players do not have the resilience to deal with ‘outcome pressure’. This is the ability of the squad to handle the expectation put on them by all and sundry. They need to focus on building resilience and performing under pressure. Bringing back the Home Nations Championship would be one simple step; much like England Rugby compete for the 6 Nations Championship every season. This Championship pressure on home turf will enhance resilience.

  • 2005 British Lions Tour – Having coached the 2003 England Rugby World Champions, Sir Clive Woodward set about deploying the same ‘England success’ model with the British Lions. He brought his winning England coaching team together for this Lions tour. Also, he brought in a team ‘spin doctor’ in the shape of Alistair Campbell. Campbell had just finished being the spin doctor to ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Campbell was supposed to gain a psychological advantage over the All Blacks, but was this just another example of failing to address the ‘world-class basics’ first before adding the bells and whistles. Woodward had a team of disparate world-class players and arguably only one world-leading player in Brian O’Driscoll. Did Woodward fail to address the most important factor of ‘what it took to win’ and fail to unify the team behind his game-breakers?

This insight has tried to set out three options you can use for competitive advantage in whatever industry or sport you are involved with:

  • Establish ‘world-class basics’ in all facets of your organisation, teams or individual performance. Examine the gap between your system, equipment, technique, execution in comparison to the world-leading examples and assemble a hybrid of world-bests. This includes zero defects and eliminating mistakes under-pressure.

  • Innovate – Gain a maximal advantage through developing novel systems, techniques and equipment to performance questions. Be first-adopters of performance parallels from other industries or sports with similar challenges.

  • Marginal Gains – Gain advantage through the super-refinement of techniques, processes and equipment. 

“Polish the gemstone, not the pebble and beware of the ‘cost-to-performance-gain’ ratio.”

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