Can people development borrow from the science of marginal gains?

Posted 29 Jun 2017 by Claire Bremner, Senior Consultant at OPP

Saturday 1 July marks the start of the 2017 Tour de France. In eager anticipation of the sporting ultra-event that I most look forward to each year, I have mulled over the nature of the challenges this year’s route will present. Who amongst the favourites will we see tussling for the daily jerseys and, of course, the ultimate yellow jersey? What teamwork highs and lows will keep fans entertained throughout the gruelling three-week tour which starts in Dusseldorf, traverses the Alps and Pyrénées, and concludes in Paris?

In my anticipation, I have also been reflecting on the concept of aggregation of marginal gains, which has become well known in recent years through the sport of cycling. In this context, it is about improving every area related to cycling by just 1% and reaping the rewards (in terms of successful performance) of the accumulated impact of all of these marginal gains.

I began to wonder if we could apply this concept of the aggregation of marginal gains to people development. In my experience of working with leaders and teams, it is not uncommon to hear people talking about wanting to make significant changes (that require concerted effort) and then bemoaning the fact that the changes just don’t seem to stick. Perhaps the answer is to make very small changes that we might hardly even notice day-to-day but which, when combined with other small changes, add up to an impactful improvement that lasts (caveat: the small changes would need to be repeated rather than simply a one-off).

One of the senior leaders I worked with not long ago talked about making what he saw as very minor changes to the way he was organising his time and interacting with his team. He changed one minor thing in how he managed his diary and meetings, started to regularly delegate one task on his list and experimented with a small style shift in his interactions with his team by acknowledging effort more often. The result he’d noticed was his team being supercharged and motivated from being included more. I was struck by his tone of surprise when he said that these small changes had really had an impact. I remember commenting at the time that often it is the small, incremental changes that make a difference, even while we might not expect them to, particularly if these small changes help us to form new habits and make a shift out of ‘autopilot’.

Some might argue that the aggregation of marginal gains is a prescriptive science which reduces everything to a routine, squashing all spontaneity. However, I’m not suggesting that we apply this concept to our lives in the way that they do in competitive cycling – rather, we apply them in smaller ways.

Here are some examples.


What are your workplace marginal gains?

We’d love to hear about them in the comments section.

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