How 1% Improvements Can Make A Ton Of Difference

Have you ever wondered how much value you would get if you simply improved your productivity by 1%? According to the British cycling team, 1% can mean a lot more than you’d ever expect.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Until 2002, the British cycling team had only won a single gold medal in its almost 80 years of existence. Things changed in 2003, when Sir Dave Brailsford joined them as a performance director.

The philosophy of “marginal gains”

In his early 20s, Dave Brailsford had competed in Tour de France as a sponsored amateur racing cyclist. After the race, he returned to the UK to study sports science and psychology. He became passionate about the science behind performance in sports, so he went on to complete his studies with an MBA degree at the University of Sheffield Management School.

He joined the British Cycling in 1997, but it wasn’t until 2003 that his impact on the team’s performance became obvious. That was when he started putting into practice his philosophy of marginal gains:

“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 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together” - principle of marginal gains explained by Dave Brailsford (2012)

Once Brailsford started applying his technique, the results became better and better. Between 2003 and 2013, the UK won 59 World Championships, across different disciplines. At the 2004 Olympic Games, the UK’s team won two cycling gold medals. It was that their best performance since 1908. In 2008 and 2012, they continued to impress the world by bringing home another 8 gold medals.

In 2010, Brailsford also became the manager of the new British-based professional team, Team Sky, leading them to victory in the 2012, 2013, and the 2015 Tours de France competitions.

That 1% that changed everything

Whenever we consider a change for the better, we’re tempted to imagine BIG changes. There’s an entire industry of techniques and training resources out there to make transitions smoother. Because most of the time change is indeed a long, difficult process.

But according to Dave Brailsford, many small, easy to implement changes are even better than big ones. In a 2015 interview for Harvard Business Review, Brailsford advises the readers to think small: improve on the small things, and you’ll get much better overall results.

“We should think small, not big, and adopt a philosophy of continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains. Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements” - Dave Brailsford for (2015)

He even paints a very vivid example: how he reduced the risk of illness during competitions. He looked for opportunity improvements in common habits and observed a fact: a lot of illnesses are triggered by poor hands hygiene. So one thing he decided to improve was hand-washing. He then hired a surgeon to teach the team how to properly wash their hands. He also banned his team from shaking hands during the Olympics.

Sounds a bit extreme?

If you look at these decisions as isolated events, they do seem a bit odd, but altogether they offered the team an enormous competitive advantage.

Make 5 common work habits 1% better

For me, reading about Dave Brailsford’s strategy was absolutely refreshing. I think there’s something revolutionary about the idea that one individual or a team can accomplish exceptional results by tweaking the small, common habits. This means that absolutely anyone and any team can easily improve productivity.

Brailsford’s approach inspired me to think of the small changes that any team can start implement right now. Here’s what I came out with:

  1. Spend 5 min / day cleaning your desk
    Some argue that a messy desk is a sign of creativity, but there’s a big difference between “messy” and “a mess”. If you waste time every day looking for documents on your desk, it’s time to make a change. Save those minutes for something more pleasant and less stressful by taking an insignificant amount of time every day to keep things neatly organized.
  2. Spend 25 min / week learning
    No matter what your job is, it’s important to never stop learning. If you’re postponing a podcast, a book or an online class because you can’t find the time, think about what 1% of a week’s time means. It’s the time you’d chat with a colleague on a Friday afternoon. This week, save that time for an episode of your favorite podcast. You never know what this small improvement will trigger.
  3. Engage with your team
    An infographic highlights that 41% of US employees complain there’s a lack of communication between staff and management. Spend 1% of your time every month on one-to-one discussions (one-to-one chats are just as good). This way you’ll stay in sync with your teammates and most likely avoid potential communication barriers.
  4. Reduce time spent in meetings
    Take a look at your calendar for the past month. How many work hours did you spend in meetings? Try to reduce that time by 1% with a simple technique: distinguish between the meetings where you’re really needed and those that will waste your time.
  5. Spend less time searching for information 
    According to an IDC White Paper, businesses are losing money because of internal knowledge that can’t be tracked and found on the spot, exactly when you need it. I’m aware this is a bit more difficult to quantify, but I remember that before using Hubgets, I was finding myself (at least once a day) looking for a particular email in a long thread of FWs and REs. Now, our entire team communicates exclusively through Hubgets, and finding a certain file or a specific conversation is easier and faster than ever.

Would you like more tips on how to make your day more productive? Check out this article: How to Adopt the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” to Boost your Productivity at Work

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