Why all agile teams should look for marginal gains
Sometimes I wonder what is more competitive; Professional sports or the international business world. Significant projects succeed and fail on the smallest margins just like the world of elite sports.
Undoubtedly, one of the success stories of Rio 2016 was Team GB. It strikes me that the corporate world could learn a lot from Team GBs approach over the last 20 years.
I know there has been a lot written over the past month or so about Team GBs astounding success in Rio. However, indulge me to recap a few pertinent points:
- In Atlanta 1996, GB won just one Gold Medal
- Team GB have increased their medal haul every Olympics since
- Team GB won medals in Rio across a wider range of sports than any other nation, including medal toppers USA
- Team GB is one of few nations that does not provide cash bonuses to medal winners. Italy for example award Gold medal winners $189,800
What I love about the Olympics, is that most athletes, even if they are at the top of their sport, are not in it for money. Even millionaires like Andy Murray and Justin Rose forewent lucrative events to prepare foe and participate in the Olympics.
That isn’t to say there’s not money in the elite sports funding. Quite the opposite, Team GB were one of the best funded teams. The difference between success and failure is how that money is used.
In elite sports, it seems almost everything has been tried before. As a result, performance differences between athletes at the highest level has become so small. That’s why the extent of Team GB successes is remarkable.
I’ve been interested in the theory of Marginal Gains since reading Sky’s The Limit - a book by Richard Moore charting the success of Team Sky. For those of you that aren’t aware, this is the theory several marginal performance increases are much easier to find than a single significant one. Yet, the net effect can be the same, or once the marginal gains mind-set is adopted, much much greater.
There are some great examples of how this has been put to use at Team GB. The boxing team for example conducted a sleep review of all its athletes, and by making small adjustments to the sleeping environments were able to add 24 minutes of sleep every night. Some deeper insight in to some of the other can be read here:
It seems insanely obvious that we can learn a lot from this approach in the business world. But how?
There is a subtle, but vast, difference between meddling around trying to improve and strategically identifying marginal gains that can be a strategic advantage. Here are my tips:
1. You must have a crystal clear objective. That might be to provide a better service, increase profit, lower operating costs or improve staff morale. However, it needs to be clear and precise. Team GBs cyclists, were not just trying to improve, they were trying to win Olympic golds. In doing so, they somewhat sacrificed their performance at the World Track Cycling Championships in London, in order to peak at the Olympics.
2. You must have a stable base line. Inconsistency and lack of standardisation is the enemy. GB cycling would simply not be able to measure performance improvements if they were all on different bikes, or trained at different times of the day. Therefore you must understand your status quo and can then think about identifying small improvements
3. You must have a routine. That could be time bound, say a weekly schedule or campaign/project driven. You must have a period of time that enables you to reflect and asses what works and what doesn’t
4. You must stick with it. You must keep doing the things that work. It all falls apart if you introduce one marginal gain but drop another. Ultimately, this discipline is what sets out the winners from the losers.
I’ve been considering this deeply, and it’s impossible for me not to notice the similarities between Agile methodologies and the approach above. Agile does not deliver marginal gains but, it certainly creates the perfect environment to adopt them and become a highly performing team. A rethink of your marketing and technology approach may be the key to your success.