And while they set out with big goals, they improve using systematic and surgical precision.
In my 30 years of researching and writing about what motivates people to be exceptional, I’ve found that most of us also set big goals, but we try and tackle them all at once because we want immediate results — and invariably, end up failing.
Sir Dave Brailsford, former performance director of British Cycling, revolutionized the sport using the theory of marginal gains.
Brailsford believed that if you make a 1% improvement in a host of tiny areas, the cumulative benefits would be extraordinary. The theory of marginal gains (or, as I sometimes call it, “microexcellence”) has been credited for vaulting the British cycling team from a mediocre performer to 16 gold medals over two Olympics and seven Tour de France wins in eight years.
The examples of microexcellence used by the British cycling team are legendary in the sports world.
Brailsford had the floors of the team truck painted pristine white to spot dust on the floor because even the slightest amount of dust could potentially impair bike maintenance.
This act alone wasn’t enough to win a race or make any more than a borderline gain, but when added to a host of other small improvements, it made all the difference.
The Tour de France is a 21-day race of grueling distances and climbs that saps every ounce of energy and strength from its riders. During the race, the cyclists slept in 21 different hotels, each with different beds and pillows.
When you are riding six hours a day for three weeks straight, the slightest deprivation of rest can make a significant difference in performance. Brailsford had the team bus carry custom-designed mattresses and pillows for each rider, which were set up in each athlete’s room so that the elements of rest and recovery were controlled and not left to chance.
Again, this is a detail that in isolation is not going to win you the Tour de France, but in combination with all of the other minor changes, the results are staggering.
“Perhaps the most powerful benefit is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm,” Brailsford said in a 2015 interview with Harvard Business Review. “Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains — the bonhomie is similar to a scavenger hunt.”
As this thinking became a culture and a philosophy shared by all members of Brailsford’s team, they kept searching for any and every area where they could make tiny improvements. Their goal was a marginal or 1% gain in every aspect of their training and environment.
Individually, each incremental change may have seemed unnecessary or random, but collectively, they helped create a powerhouse with a level of success that became the envy of the cycling world.
It is a lot easier to focus on manageable improvements where you see specific results than to chase big ideas that may lead nowhere.
But the dedicated focus on improvement in the smallest of tasks (that no one wants to spend time on) is what separates the elite few from others who are often more gifted and talented — but never realize their full potential.
Dr. Kumar Mehta, Ph.D., is the author of the bestselling book “The Innovation Biome,” and has been at the forefront of research and innovation for 30 years. He researches, writes, and speaks about personal excellence. Dr. Mehta’s experience includes nine years as the CEO of a data analytics company and a 14-year stint at Microsoft. He also serves as a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern. His latest book is “The Exceptionals: How the Best Become the Best and How You Can Too.” Follow him on Twitter @mehtakumar.