David Brailsford, director for British Cycling and general manager of cycling’s Team Sky led the rise of Team GB cycling and the incredible Olympic success in 2012, and coined the phrase “the aggregation of marginal gains” to describe his approach to developing performance. It is interesting to consider this approach to sports coaching and how it transfers to executive coaching. Also, consider the opposite, the consequences of marginal and incremental decay.
David Brailsford said: “It’s important to understand the ‘aggregation of marginal gains’. Put simply….how small improvements in a number of different aspects of what we do can have a huge impact to the overall performance of the team.” The notion of marginal gains has been around for a long time, but David Brailsford captured the moment as the energy of the London 2012 games was at its height.
This suggests that no stone is left unturned; in fact no grain of sand is left unturned. I am sure that within the cycling team every performance statistic was analysed and re-analysed. Feedback was focused and detailed, and challenging goals set and set again. I know from the Olympic rowing athletes I work with that this depth of analysis includes techniques to get the rowing blade in and out of the water hundredths of a second faster and involves nutrition, bio-mechanics, physiotherapist, physiologists, and the amount of sleep! There is a huge amount of data collected with feedback to the athlete with the intention to improve performance.
Imagine if we took a similar approach with our coaching clients, what would this be like? Everything is important, each of the parts is significant, and in fact the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Everything a coach hears, sees and witnesses in the coaching room is relevant and the basis for marginal aggregation. Every piece of data be it 360 degree feedback, psychometrics, the achievement of previous objectives is useful and relevant. This means that as coaches we must be tuned in to all forms of available information. We are in the laboratory of learning, creating a formula that bit by bit will increase the performance of the coachee. Taking the cycling analogy to an extreme and given the Lance Armstrong revelations, we are concocting a psychological performance enhancing super-drug which is unique to each coachee, but the difference is this is all legal and is not cheating!
Now let’s consider the opposite situation, that of aggregation of marginal decay. Performance can slip slightly, tasks are not undertaken to the same standard as before, one action is not undertaken, one conversation to check progress is missed. Each one of these in isolation is inconsequential, or is it? There may be tendency to let these small omissions go, “he’s just having a bad day”, excuses are made. But bit by bit the performance decay takes place, to start with it is so gradually it is difficult to see, but sometimes easier to sense.
Problems occurs, organisational failures take place, and disasters happen one conversation at a time, or more accurately through the lack of one conversation at a time. Feedback is not given, people are not held accountable and so the problem grows until it is too big to deal with. The zone of uncomfortable debate is avoided in preference for the zone of comfortable debate.
If feedback was provided at the earliest stage, if people were routinely held accountable and the wider system considered then a high performance culture would exist in which the aggregation of marginal gains is evident and embraced. The opposite is a scary apathy which leads to decay and failure. I know the approach I choose!
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