Proactive Change and The Aggregation of Marginal Gains

There is a story I think of every day about a concept called the aggregation of marginal gains. A performance improvement method developed and used by Great Britain’s cycling team: Team Sky.

Sir David Brailsford was appointed Performance Director of Team Sky in 2010. His remit was to help them win the Tour de France within five years. Brailsford, did the usual things all performance directors would have done. He improved rider nutrition, training schedules etc.  

His point of difference was honing in on what he calls the aggregation of marginal gains, or as I’ve come to understand it, “the one per cent improvement we can make in everything we do.” 

Brailsford encouraged all team members, coaches, engineers and other team members to identify the small things that could be improved in every aspect of the team. 

There were no sacred cows. Everything was up for consideration:

  • Tyre width. 
  • Having hand sanitizer constantly on hand.  
  • The bedding the team slept on while on tour. 

It worked. Team Sky Cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in 2012, and Chris Froome won silver. Froome then went on to win the Tour de France again in 2013, 2015 and 2016. 

Brailsford’s work inspires me to ask myself each day, “what’s the  one per cent improvement I can make today?”

The aggregation of marginal gains tells us achievements are made one good action at a time. Brailsford teaches consistency is key, and we should never miss a good habit twice.  For example, if I miss the gym on Monday, I have to go Tuesday or I’ll end up missing the whole week.  

He also teaches us to never repeat a bad habit twice. If I make a mistake today, it’s not a big deal. If I do it again tomorrow, it’s becoming a career limiting habit.    

  • What small action, if repeated over and over again, will lead to your success?

The Core Principle

Along with developing a collaborative culture constantly looking for marginal gains, Brailsford also applied, what he calls, the CORE principle to Team Sky‘s performance. 

The CORE Principle and one per cent marginal gain theory work hand in hand to achieve optimal performance across the team.  

The C stands for Commitment

Motivation changes, but commitment and attitude provides consistency. Commitment is about having an intrinsic drive towards achieving a goal and taking ownership of your training, development and performance.  

Applying this:

Be clear on why you do what you do, why you work where you work, and why you wish to continually make improvements to achieve greater success.  

Motivation waxes and wanes. When we’re clear on what we want and why we want it, we’re more likely to commit to great actions – even when it’s hard.  


Commitment provides us with intrinsic motivation.  

O stands for Ownership

Brailsford encourages everyone to take initiative and have a say in what they’re doing.  He says ownership is about having an opinion. As a leader, this is about creating an open environment for transparency. 

“No one likes to be micromanaged.”

David Brailsford

Applying this:

This refers to being transparent and taking ownership of your performance. Share that you’re committed to performing. Find the best way to communicate your thoughts and ideas to your manager and your team.

R stands for Responsibility 

Brailsford encourages everyone to be clear about accountability. For what are you accountable and not accountable? What is and isn’t expected of your attitude and performance?  

Applying this:

Success is as much about what we don’t do, as what we do. Let’s not get distracted by minor things. Have a look at your “to do” list today. What’s on it that you really shouldn’t be doing?  

Write yourself a “stop doing” list.  

If you’re a leader, remember you can be responsible for a task without actually having to action that task. I often hear from managers whose staff will come to them with issues they then take on as their own. This is often unnecessary; your team want your feedback and coaching. 

Remember, Brailsford created a world-leading team in a role that was essentially “hands off”.  He wasn’t a rider. He wasn’t a coach. He was the Performance Director and created a monster by setting the strategy, holding the vision and coaching the coaches.  

E stands for Excellence 

This is about being the best you can be. What is your standard of excellence? What is the standard of excellence for your role and your industry? 

Applying this:

Define what excellence means to you. Your vision guides your behaviour, and creates your brand. Likewise, find out what excellence means for your customers, your manager, your peers and your competitors.  

I often see people running around doing 100 things to impress, without first asking the right questions to understand what’s truly important. Make sure you’re clear on what’s expected of you.  

If you’re a leader, are you truly clarifying what success looks like for your team?  

Do you repeat this message at every opportunity? (Team meetings, email, etc.) Clarity is key.  

The Brailsford story is important. It demonstrates how developing a few new habits leads to success. It inspires us to continually look for the incremental changes that will lead to the greatest results.

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 improved it by one per cent, you would see a significant increase when combined.

There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you’re away and training in different places.

Do you really know how to clean your hands without leaving the bits between your fingers?

If you do things like that properly, you’ll we well for longer periods of time. 

“They’re tiny things, but if you clump them together it makes a big difference.”

David Brailsford

Calls to action:

Journal:

  • What’s the one per cent improvement you can make today to move you forward towards your goals?

Habit to work on:

  • Develop the habit of asking yourself and your team this question each day.

Let us know how you go,

Cholena xo

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