As an IT Manager, I have worked by the principles of the “Marginal Gains Theory”.

This approach was made famous by David Brailsford, the Performance Director of British Cycling. During the London 2012 Summer Olympics, he led Team GB Track Cycling to a record seven gold medals (or 70% of the gold medals available for track cycling events). Clearly he was doing something right. So, I thought that finding a way to apply his philosophy of marginal gains to my work could help me to become a better Analyst/Manager.

“Marginal gains is more than a process, it’s a mentality.” – David Brailsford​

In order to find out where they were lacking, Team GB examined every aspect of their performance in order to find where they could extract small advantages. All of these would “collectively add up to a decisive winning margin.” They began with optimizing the obvious stuff like the nutrition of their riders, their training regimen, weight and ergonomics of equipment, etc. But what really set them apart is that they went above and beyond the obvious.

They searched for marginal (1%) improvements in small areas that other teams had overlooked: They searched for a pillow that would offer athletes the most restful sleep, then took it with them wherever they traveled. They taught their athletes the most effective way to wash their hands so they got sick less often. One athlete even brought an espresso machine with him to events around the world so that he could always have a perfect cup of espresso before racing.

History of Marginal Gains

Brailsford wasn’t the first to utilize marginal gains to reap great performance benefits; many sports have used this principle in the past. Perhaps the sport that has been most greatly dominated by marginal gains is Formula 1 (F1) racing, where incremental improvements in technology are key to gaining a competitive advantage over the competition. F1’s governing body, the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), rules F1 with a strict set of regulations which forces their teams to seek out every sort of marginal gain they can. This has taken the form of great advances in carbon fiber technology (weight reduction and aerodynamics), kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS), and cars that produce mind-boggling amounts of downforce.

While modern-day sports embrace this idea, the theory of marginal gains can actually be tracked back to the 19th century. Back in 1886, Wilhelm Steinitz became the first official world chess champion. He accomplished this by being one of the first people in recorded history to apply a methodical system of marginal gains in competition. His approach came to be known as the Steinitz Accumulation Theory, or the Steinitz System. It required the player to analyze and understand the position of pieces to accumulate advantages to gain dominance against an opponent – in short, Steinitz’s thinking lay the foundation for modern chess theory.

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