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Marginal Gains

Marginal Gains can be a distraction or an accelerator.

Marginal (minor), Gain (performance value). The gain can be 1+1=3 when integrated into a performance system. Or 1+1=0 when not.

When I created the innovation programmes for the British team and later the NZ team there were two conversations happening in the UK about the same potential gain. A new research designed pillow for better sleep and recovery. One sport with no recovery strategy bought the pillows and handed them out to their athletes. The other sport had a sleep and recovery strategy they had been polishing for four years. The pillow was a recovery accelerator to the whole programme. The performance meaning was clear. The other sport handed out new pillows. Marginal or Gain.

When we are on the hunt to find the 1% improvements we can drive towards a very complicated and noisy experiment. I have seen many marginal gain experiments detract from performance. Unintended consequence. The gain had potential and worked elsewhere but it did not fit the current performance system. When the ‘marginal’ fits the system there is ‘gain’.

Reframe marginal gains to meaningful gains. It focusses us on the system we are in and how to integrate simply and quickly.

The successful sports and businesses playing the marginal gains game know the meaning! It looks like continuous adding but it is continuous integration, polishing and alignment.

I spent many years as an athlete pursuing marginal gains before I had ever heard of the term. I raced bikes and I drilled all my components out. Sure, a marginal weight advantage but was it meaningful? I filled my tires with 200psi of helium. Marginal resistance, likely infinitesimal but meaningful? Possibly not.

While some of us were drilling and pursuing weight my team-mate was pursuing wind resistance. My team-mate obsessed with the meaningful gains of drag. The rest of us pursued marginal and he pursued meaningful. He knew his system and drag mattered most. He was the first in the world to bring triathlon handle bars (like a superman position) to sprinting and unveiled them at the World Championships and won a bronze medal. The next year everyone had tri bars and he was down the ranks again. The meaningful gain had worked.

When we deeply know the performance system we are in, we will see the true performance meaning behind new ideas.

Choose meaningful over marginal. Same component, different lens, more value.


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