Using the Theory of Marginal Gains to Make Yourself Impossible to Compete With

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In 2003, the British Cycling team was in a terrible state.

They had only won one gold medal since 1908, and no British cyclist had ever won the biggest cycling race in the world, the Tour de France, in its 110-year history.

In fact, the performance of British riders had been so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they were afraid that it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear.

British Cycling was praying for a miracle, and it turned up when they hired a guy called Dave Brailsford to be their new performance director.

Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory, with a reputation for his relentless commitment to a strategy that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

This obsession on small 1% incremental improvements in lots of little areas was obsessed over and included things such as:

  • Having the floors of the team truck painted pristine white to spot dust on the floor because even the slightest amount of dust could potentially impair bike maintenance
  • Asking riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding
  • Including some very obscure improvements such as hiring a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold

On their own, each of these actions were likely to make little to no difference.

Yet when combined, and with these marginal gains compounding, it made a significant impact to the performance of his cycling team and their success.

Just five years after he took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games where they won 60% of all the gold medals available. Four years later, at the 2012 Olympics, the same team raised the bar again and set nine Olympic records and seven world records.

Later that year, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France, with his teammate Chris Froome winning the race in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

During Dave Brailsford’s ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured five Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.

Where are the marginal gains in your business?

Just as Dave Brailsford looked at each singular area of his cycling team and focused on improving it by just 1%, the question is: What are the areas of your clinic where you can do the same?

Just consider the patient journey.

Could your front desk answer the phone 1% better?

Could your greeting to patients when they walk through the door be just 1% better?

Could the waiting room be 1% nicer?

Could the walk from your waiting room to your office be 1% more interesting?

Etc. Etc.

This isn’t a case of making things twice as good or expelling huge energy and brainpower to make huge changes … this is just focusing on those small, often unnoticeable, differences.

To give you some examples, here are five random things that you could do to enhance certain areas of your business by 1%.

  • Could your answering machine message be slightly better?
  • Could your staff’s uniforms/outfits be 1% nicer?
  • Could your waiting room be 1% tidier?
  • Could your printed materials in your office be 1% better?
  • Could your patient forms be 1% easier?

Naturally, this is a never-ending exercise, but it’s one that will compound to ensure that your patient experience and business’s performance grows significantly.

If you want to learn more about this theory, then Dave Brailsford was interviewed on a very popular podcast last year where he shared his theory of marginal gains – the full interview can be seen below.

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Oli Luke

Co-Founder & Marketing Director
Orange & Gray

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