“Marginal gains” help British cycling win gold
Britain have won an amazing seven out of 10 track cycling gold medals in London. One of the secrets of this success is an approach called "marginal gains": accumulating small points of advantage that add up to help a team win. I think this is an approach that works in business as well. Often, success is down to excellence in execution at multiple levels, with the combination hard for competition to copy, rather than one breakthrough "killer" idea.
GB cycling actually have a Head of Marginal Gains, Matt Parker. He leads a team of 15 Marginal Gains specialists, ranging from experts in biomechanics to nutrition to physiotherapy. They have completed 28 major projects in the last two and a half years. These ideas include spraying alcohol on wheels to remove a dirt and increase stickiness, use of wind tunnels to help riders tweak their riding position to improve aerodynamics and cranks (which attach the pedals to the axles) made of 180 separate pieces of carbon fibre to save weight.
Here are some insights I took out from an interview with Matt in The Independent.
1. Immersive insight
Some of the marginal gains come from being immersed in the cycling event, and not relying on asking cyclists after the event how to improve things. This is how the idea for hot pants came about. These heated pants keep the cyclists muscles warm while they are waiting to race. As director of R&D Chris Boardman says: "It's the track cycling version of tyre warmers in F1. From here on, I think we're going to see that become a standard piece of equipment."
2. Multiple waves of innovation
The marginal gains approach means that the GB team are working on multiple waves of innovation, one after another. This makes it hard for competition to catch up. No sooner had they figured out how Team GB won seven gold medals in the 2008 Olympics, then the leader was onto the next raft of innovation.
3. Focus on being the best
I was in intrigued to read how team GB are not interested in their rivals' results, focusing instead on achieving their own targets. And the key here is setting ambitious targets to keep advancing. In the case of Team GB cycling the targets are world records. As Matt says: "Rather than saying, 'if we're within a second of the [world record] we should be OK', we'll be saying, 'if we're two seconds beyond that, we should be tough to beat'."
In conclusion, the GB cycling team are an inspiring example of how to win by striving for excellence of execution at multiple levels, looking for marginal gains that add up to make a big difference.