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The Cycle of Success


You have been appointed Head of British Cycling, with the task of taking it to the top of the cycling world.

Awesome! You got the top job. Until you realise... British Cycling is also awesome... in its mediocrity. It has struggled for medals in the Olympics. No British cyclist had ever won cycling's biggest event - The Tour De France. And you recently got a really big reminder about your team's mediocrity is - a top bicycle manufacturer refused to sell you bikes because they were worried it would hurt their sales if their brand was associated with British Cycling. What a slap in the face - Other teams and professionals would not want to ride the same bikes that British Cycling team used.


So what do you do? Sir Dave Brailsford had a very simple answer. He relentlessly and obsessively pursued the aggregation of marginal gain: if the team broke down everything they could think of that goes into competing on a bike, and then improved each element by 1%, they would achieve a significant aggregated increase in performance.


What does this mean? Brailsford elaborates in an interview with the Havard Business Review:

"By experimenting in a wind tunnel, we searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analyzing the mechanics area in the team truck, we discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So we painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. We hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition (we also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics). We were precise about food preparation. We brought our own mattresses and pillows so our athletes could sleep in the same posture every night. We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage."

Video is 2 minutes long

Was is it effective? As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined. The team went from four medals at each of the 2000 and 2004 Olympics to leaving the last three Olympic Games at the top of the cycling medals table, with at least 12 in their bag. At the Rio Olympics this year, every member of the 14-strong track team won at least one medal. from 2012-2018, British Cyclists won the Tour De France 6 times in 7 years. It is widely seen as the most successful era in professional cycling.

Brailsford strategy was inspired by the Japanese business concept of Kaizen - which pushes for continuous improvement across everyone in the workplace (managers and workers alike), to keep doing little better, and in doing so, setting and achieving ever-higher standards. 

Toyota Car Company is a very established example of the practice of kaizen. Toyota emphasises the virtues of lean manufacturing - where products are produced in a manner that eliminates waste and inconsistencies, without placing unreasonable demands on workers. These are notions central to the kaizen philosophy - where the focus is placed on improving processes (rather than the product). With these improvements to the working processes, there will be a natural and consequent improvement to the product. 

The notion of Kaizen and of marginal gains sound pretty abstract. Toyota and British Cycling are far removed from our lives. So what can we really take away from this, if at all?

We are often seduced by the idea that making changes in our lives and achieving big goals we have requires some form of massive and impressive action. But think about it - most successful changes or accomplishments comes from aggregation of small actions. The Olympic gold-medalist every single day, hour after hour, making small improvements to his/her technique. Most successful businesses do not become overnight sensations - it takes years of constant planning, executing, and expansion before they grow and become profitable. And you do not master knowledge in one field from just one book or one lecture. Einstein took years and many revisions to develop his theories of special and general relativity (these theories are also partially wrong, but have helped moved our understanding of physics tremendously).  And even successful marriage doesn't depnd on the initial romance, but daily effort to maintain and upkeep. 

The graph below provides some quasi-mathematical proof:


Image from James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits, a book I would recommend. Find out more about the impact of habits in our mini-series, here

As humans, it is natural for us to want big results, and quickly. In association, we often think that the actions we have to take have to be very massive. However, we have just examined some examples - and you can think of yourself - that it is often very difficult to find one massive action that can change everything. 

In contrast, making 1% improvements might seem very trivial. We won't even notice it. But as the graph above shows, this 1% difference accumulate into a huge effect after some time. If we are 1% every day for one year, we end 37 times better than we were at the start. If we are 1% poorer every day, we end up almost at nothing. A huge gap develops between those who try to make themselves slightly better every day, as compared to those who don't. 
Making these small changes is also much more manageable, and we are far less likely to give up because it just gets too hard.

If we look back at the significant things we accomplished in life, they typically came from the aggregation of many moments. If we can create a system of doing things (i.e. a habit) that allows each moment we are involved in to be just slightly better every time, the results will compound into something major. 

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