Marginal gains and organisational change


As we approach a year since the start of London 2012, the successes of TeamGB  are being revisited and reviewed.  Amongst the most phenomenal of those achievements was the Track Cycling Team, who won 7 of the 10 available gold medals at the Olympics, and topped the medal table at the Paralympics.

Much of the success of the team is attributed to the adoption of the principle of marginal gains, a simple yet highly effective philosophy of valuing every possible improvement in performance, no matter how small.  Every 100th of a second is deemed sacred, and no stone is left unturned in hunting for opportunities to find ways to improve performance.  In a world where massive step changes in practice tend to be given disproportional kudos, marginal gains allows for a much greater degree of engagement in performance improvement, and underpins many recent corporate approaches to change, whether it be improving efficiency, productivity or profit.

If you are considering marginal gains as a philosophy in your organisational change programme, below are 5 tips to ensure it remains focussed and sustainable.

Ensure a clear ‘go-to’ position
An inherent danger of marginal gains is that it encourages ‘away-from’ thinking, where people think ‘anything is better than what we have now’.  Change always has a starting point, but it also needs a destination or ‘go-to’ position.  Without this you risk baby-stepping your way to a business you didn’t want!

Encourage a holistic view
Track cycling is a simple sport – the faster you go, the more likely you are to win. Organisations however are much more complex and gains in one area can be undone through the pressures they create elsewhere.  Consider a dedicated change team to act as a arbiter of ideas and encourage systems thinking from contributors.

Create projects to focus effort
If your end goal is too vague, you will be overwhelmed by idea that are difficult to quantify and assess.  Consider targetting improvement on highly specialised and focussed areas of your business.  E.g. how can we reduce the time from purchase to delivery, how can we better prepare employees for client meetings.

Capture and value every contribution
The success of marginal gains comes from the collective intelligence and imagination of the whole organisation.  If you want to harness this you must value every idea equally.  To value every idea you must see every idea, so consider carefully how they will be garnered.  Online is great but not everyone likes online, so what else are you going to do to ensure every person contributes?

Celebrate every success
Remember this is called marginal gains, so celebrate every gain, however marginal! The moment you are seen to disproportionately value the big ideas is the moment that half your business goes back to the day job, letting the egg-heads ‘do their thing’. A £1000 p.a. increase in profit matters, particularly if you can get 1000 of them!

With careful thought in implementation and management, marginal gains offers massive opportunities for many organisations.  Without careful thought it will simply become another piece of firewood on the bonfire of hare-brained schemes!

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