The marginal gains theory is a performance improvement strategy that can be summarized as follows:
The sum of very small improvements in many areas can give an astonishing overall result
This is a principle I mentioned in the article on mental models and which, in recent years, has found its greatest expression in the achievements of the British cycling team.
Virtually fasting for significant victories for almost a century, under the leadership of Dave Brailsford it has become, in a few years, the most dominant force in all of world cycling.
The natural consequence of these extraordinary successes was the attempt, in many cases successful, to export the theory of marginal earnings also in other fields, sports and otherwise.
Before seeing how you can in turn exploit it to obtain maximum performance when needed, let’s analyze the original idea together.
How to win an Olympics
“ If you clearly identify all the important aspects of a bike ride and improve them individually by even a small amount, like 1%, combined they will give you a huge improvement.
Of course among them there is the athletic part, but also less showy things, such as sleeping in the correct position or having the same pillow and mattress even when you train or compete away from home ” Dave Brailsford.
Based on this philosophy, in 2003 the British team began to improve, with obsessive care , a series of secondary details to which the other teams paid little attention.
- Electric leg warmersinspired by those of formula 1 tires, to reduce the risk of injuries
- First-class seats onthe team bus , for better rest during travels
- Specific mattresses and pillows, which were substituted for those provided by the hotels in which they stayed
- Cool-down and massageimmediately after the race, instead of, as usual, in the hotel
- Meticulous hand washing(a surgeon was even hired to train the athletes!) To minimize the risk of infections
- A mental coachfor each athlete, and a psychiatrist accompanying the entire team, to optimize the mental performance of the runners and identify any motivational or confidence crises from the beginning
- Ergonomics of the saddlescalculated to the millimeter on the needs of each cyclist
Brailsford was continually trying new devices : those that showed some effectiveness were maintained and deepened. Those that, on the other hand, turned out to be insignificant or harmful, were discarded.
At first, the other teams laughed at the British team’s apparent excesses.
They stopped laughing when, in the next 10 years, the Brailsford athletes won 16 Olympic gold medals, 59 world championships and two Tour de France in different cycling disciplines .
Marginal earnings and top performance
The challenges and needs of a normal person are usually very different from those of elite athletes such as the Brailsford cyclists.
Not that you necessarily struggle less, but certainly you do it in a different way.
To pass an exam, receive a “good” at work, have a tortoiseshell abs, most of the time it is enough to focus only on some fundamental aspects , doing them well and with intensity.
In these situations, applying principles such as Pareto’s (20% of the inputs to get 80% of the outputs) is essential to get the maximum result with the minimum effort.
While chasing the details could prove to be a disproportionate effort.
In fact, marginal gains are normally found in the area of minimum efficiency of the expertise curve, where the relationship between efforts and results is to the disadvantage of the latter.
Indeed, the expertise curve of most disciplines shows a typical pattern:
- initial phasein which it takes a lot of effort to get the first results
- central phasein which, for each new effort, there is a significant increase in results
- almost flat final phase, in which a considerable effort is required to improve the result even slightly
Here then, in most cases, it is not necessary to go all the way to the last part of the curve.
Just overcome the initial inertia and then devote yourself to the fundamental aspects of the discipline, leaving the details (those of the final part of the curve) to the specialists.
However, there are situations in which this strategy, in itself very reasonable, does not work: in particular, whenever you have to compete with others.
In fact, they will all be, more or less, in the central area , exactly like you.
So, to do better than them, you will have to venture into the difficult final part of the curve, trying to put together many small advantages that allow you to make a difference.
Whether it’s a sports competition, a test to enter university, a competitor who has targeted the same customer as you, a public competition for career advancement, whenever you don’t just have to get a good result, but it needs to be better than the others, you have to apply the marginal earnings strategy.
Marginal Earnings Theory: the analysis phase
Do you remember the beginning of the Brailsford sentence I quoted?
“If you clearly identify all the important aspects of a bike ride ….”
As always, when planning for success, you need to focus on analytics first.
In particular, you have to break down the entire process you want to improve into small pieces, so that you can precisely identify even those aspects that others have not thought about thoroughly.
For example, when 5000 candidates for 200 places are presented to a test, being good and willing to study a lot is not enough, on the contrary, it is only the starting line, the necessary but not sufficient condition.
Because, for mere statistical reasons, there are hundreds of those who, some a little more, some a little less, are with you on that same line.
So you have to understand what are all those small secondary elements that, put together, will give you a competitive advantage over others.
In my article on how to prepare a public competition I stressed the importance:
- To simulate the exam from the first day
- To discover the subjects that make a difference and focus on them
But, if you want to continue with the typical example of the public competition, these are just two of the many details that, with the same talent and study time, can make you do better than the others.
For example, if you can bring a calculator to the exam, those who are quicker to use it will have an advantage.
Or maybe, the fact that you have chosen to prepare yourself on one book over another can save you a lot of time.
Just as having a clear strategy regarding the maximum time for each question avoids you wasting precious minutes.
Or, having planned what you will eat in the days before the competition, how you will be dressed, which pen you will use, can make the difference between finding yourself in the classroom concentrated and at ease or uncomfortable and distracted.
From those who are sick because they have to go to the bathroom to those who have a calculator suddenly empty and have not brought the batteries, from those who studied like crazy on the wrong book to those who had to take care of their son with a fever the night before, the story of competitions is full of willing and prepared candidates who have made a mess because of what many call bad luck.
But what Dave Brailsford would prefer to call ” lack of analysis and capillary preparation”.
Theory of marginal gains: measurement and feedback
There are two things that, in implementing a marginal earnings strategy like Dave Brailsford, you will probably never have:
- Millions of euros in budget to test each variable
- A team that analyzes, thinks and solves for you, and then tells you exactly what you need to do
The good thing, however, is that, if we talk about competitions, exams or normal competition at work, the others won’t have them either.
Instead, there is one thing you can do, alone or with minimal help, that 99% of others won’t: measure your performance, give you structured feedback, and adapt your strategies accordingly.
How do you know if a certain aspect of your preparation is worth investing time and energy on?
How do you decide what’s important and what’s not?
How do you measure whether or not you are improving by some percentage?
How do you know if you are sticking to your schedule?
You have to replicate, in a small way, what the British team did.
That is to test, one after the other, the possible areas for improvement, measure the results you get, adjust your strategy based on them.
It is no coincidence that feedback is the tool with which biology, our neurons, all natural evolution work: we insist on what works, we forget what doesn’t work.
This poses a further challenge: in fact, in the central part of the curve, as we have seen, the results are always of great entity, and therefore easily measurable.
In the final part, however, when it comes to marginal gains, the measurement and feedback system you have to set up must be precise and reliable.
Otherwise you will do, again, like everyone else.
When to use the Marginal Gains theory
Although the theory of marginal gains is fascinating and effective, it is absolutely not advisable, in my opinion, to elevate it to a lifestyle.
First of all, because trying to always stay in the final part of the curve is, at the same time, exhausting and limiting: if you want to do everything at the top, you will have to do a few things.
And then because, in general, I like to conceive of life as a cooperative game, where there doesn’t have to be always winners and losers.
The systematic application of the theory of marginal gains, on the other hand, with its exasperated focus on competition, tends precisely to create a win-lose mentality that is exhausting and ethically questionable.
However, this does not mean that we all like to win.
And that, above all, there come moments or periods in life when winning can be really fundamental.
It is in those moments and periods that the Marginal Gains strategy must be applied without hesitation, fighting for every inch and making every possible effort to accumulate advantages in areas that others have not even considered.
If you win in the end, not only will you not have stolen anything from anyone, but you can be proud of what you have done.