The principle of “marginal gains” and a leadership mistake

I first heard about the principle of “marginal gains” several years ago in (of all places) a church setting in Sunday School!  To teach the principle, the teacher introduced us to a compelling story about the British Olympic track cycling team.

We learned about the team’s amazing application of the marginal gains principle through a ~6 year journey that took the team from a losing 76-year history (during which the team won only a single Olympic gold medal) and positioned the cyclists as winners of 7 out of 10 available gold medals in track cycling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  For the interested reader who wants to learn more, I’ll post a link in the comments to a wonderful 2015 HBR interview with Sir Dave Brailsford (head of British Cycling during this time period).

The Sunday School teacher’s intent in sharing the story was to help us focus on making steady, incremental progress in our personal worship and discipleship.

As a small business owner, I was also genuinely excited about the principle and could see the value of introducing it to our team and making it part of our culture!

I drafted a handout to share the cycling team’s story with all of our team members, and I met with the whole team to introduce it and to talk about how we could apply this principle of careful, continuous improvement in our operations, both individually and collectively.  We even designed and printed up “What’s your 1%?” graphics to put on the walls in strategic areas to keep the principle at top of mind.

I sincerely believe that some on the team took the principle to heart, but the idea never really seemed to gain traction. In hindsight, however, I failed the team overall as a leader in these efforts.  How so?

From one team leader’s perspective that was shared with me later, some on the team felt that they were already giving 100%, and my “rah-rah” cheer for incremental 1% gains came across to them as a disrespectful misjudgment of their past efforts.  Among other things I could have done more effectively, I should have started by sharing the marginal gains principle with my leadership team before doing the all-hands presentation. This would have helped me to understand the leadership team’s thoughts and concerns as well as their recommendations about how to best introduce the principle and to apply it in our processes.

I believe that with the leadership team’s support, we could have established this as a key element of our culture to reinforce and live by going forward.

This was an important lesson learned for me personally and an opportunity lost for my business – but I hope that even one person reading this will have the opportunity to reconsider how they approach introducing such important ideas and changes to their company or team!

Marginal gains applied to business
British cycling team at the Bejing 2008 Olympics (Image courtesy of