I was recently on a phone call with a client who is in the middle of an overwhelming amount of day-to-day work and trying to balance that with a focus on accomplishing a significant strategic initiative. In the phone call, my client said, “They aren’t big, but we are making small incremental changes, and we’ll get there.” I’m not quite sure that she realized the power in her statement, but she is absolutely right. They will get there, and it will be due to the collective results of them making many, many small incremental changes along the way.

Sometimes we miss the power of small things because we are focused on the “big picture” or the “big initiative”. In the introduction to his recent book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, Fareed Zakaria stated “We are often advised to think big. But maybe we need to start thinking small.” While he used the quote in the context of global threats, it applies in business as well. Occasionally our biggest business threat isn’t our inability to make one big change but rather it is our inability to affect and execute a bunch of small ones or believe that small ones can make a difference. Consider this example.

In 2003, the British cycling team was woefully behind the world in performance. The team was not getting the results desired. In short, they were not winning races. They brought in Sir David Brailsford as Coach, and he brought a philosophy he coined as “the aggregation of marginal gains theory”. His goal and the team’s goal was to improve everything they were doing by 1%. The theory was that the cumulative effect of many 1% changes would be compounded into significant results. And, it worked. Their incremental improvements in nearly everything (e.g., the training regimen, the bike frames, the tires, nutrition and sleep for the riders, etc.) over time resulted in the team dominating the 2008 and 2012 Olympic games and winning 4 of 5 of the Tour De France races between 2012 and 2016.

The cumulative effect of the smallest actions can make a big difference in results. Consider how this could be applied in your organization right now. The Theory of Marginal Gains is really all about systems thinking and taking aim at pockets of opportunity for improved performance. It’s about examining every element in a system and setting it up to the best it can be to support the best performance possible.

While there are many ‘core’ systems and areas for which this thinking can be used, let’s consider three key areas for application:

  • Employee Experience in the Remote/Hybrid environment – The world of work has shifted for most of us. For many, it’s a new paradigm. It’s a shift in perspective, and it’s a tough market for talent. In a recent article, the World Economic Forum stated that there are a record number of openings in the US and that in a survey of 30,000 employees across 30 countries, 41% of employees plan to leave their current job this year. Simply put, there is not only a war for talent. There is also a war to keep good talent. And, it all starts with the company. Employees are looking for development, progress, and a connection to purpose. How are you delivering on those in your employee experience, especially with the changing dynamic due to hybrid and remote work? If you examine communication and touchpoints, what could you do to improve them each by 1% and ensure they are delivering on employee needs? What one or two new or changed actions could strengthen the connection with your employees by 1%? Then, what are the next two?
  • Manager Actions and Behaviors – Based on recent Gallup research, 70% of the difference in employee engagement across teams is attributable to the actions of the manager. If you break down the Manager actions and behaviors that make the biggest difference, it includes the Manager’s ability to listen, coach, set expectations, give feedback, provide recognition, care, create a sense of team and belonging, remove obstacles, promote growth, and hold people accountable. What if your Managers were 1% better in every one of those behaviors? What would a 1% lift do for your teams and organization? What are one or two actions you could take to improve Manager actions and behaviors by 1%? Then, what are the next two?
  • Customer Experience – We exist to serve our clients or customers. Regardless of company or industry, a significant portion of new customers often come from referrals by existing customers. In short, the customer experience and value delivered through it are critical elements to the ongoing success of the business. Have you ever mapped out your customer journey or experience and identified every communication and touchpoint? What if you could be 1% better at every touchpoint? How would that elevate the experience? What would that 1% lift do for your client and your results? What are one or two actions that you could take to improve the customer experience by 1%? Then, what are the next two?

Notice there is a focus on doing only one or two things at a time. Our experience with clients is that a focus on too many things at once or trying to overhaul an entire system and improve every aspect at once can be overwhelming, and people often don’t feel or see signs of progress. To combat this, focus on improving one or two things. Once those are achieved, look for the next areas of opportunity and tackle those. For it is in the aggregation of those small changes over time that you will achieve the true potential for performance within the system.
While the three areas above are critically important for every company, they are not the only areas that are important.

You can pose this same thought process to practice development, innovation, training and development, operations, finance, and more. Each area has pockets of opportunities for a 1% improvement and the potential to deliver greater value in a better or new way to all parties involved.

As leaders, it’s important to think big. It’s equally important to think small and to build a discipline and habit around exploring and executing on marginal gains. To bring the best of ourselves and our company to deliver excellence to those whom we serve internally and externally, we must be committed to challenging the status quo, asking questions like those above, and continually seeking to uncover the art of what’s possible – even if it’s simply an improvement of 1%.