Blog · Jun 1, 2017

Marginal Gains – ‘One Percenters’

I talk a lot about being focused on performance or in other words, continuous improvement, having a performance mindset, marginal gains or ‘one percenters’. For the sake of this blog I’m not going to define and discuss the difference between these phrases, I just want to look at what they mean at a basic level and how we engage in them.

When talking about marginal gains the very first thing that we need to be clear about is the difference between Performance and Results. Results are about winning or losing. Being first, second or third. Winning a deal or not. Making a profit or a loss. Hitting a target or missing it. Our Performance is our actions, behaviours and mindset that lead to the results.

Performance is about how well we engage with people, how quickly we write a proposal, how well we deal with an objection or an unhappy employee. These actions and behaviours lead to the results. They shouldn’t be measured in a win / lose way. They are often more subtle and need to be thought of on a scale of how good we are. Dealing with an unhappy employee isn’t a win / lose conversation, and writing a document isn’t often about profit or loss, but all these things can be measured on a scale of 1 -10 on how well we did it.

The concept of performance thinking is quite simple and straightforward. Doing it however, is much harder. It requires a degree of knowledge about:

  • What we are doing
  • How well we’re doing it
  • How we might be able to do it better

We also need the desire to want to make improvements, and the courage to try to do it differently, knowing that it might not work the first time, or it actually might not be the best thing to do after all.

Get curious about the recipe

Let’s assume that the task we are doing is the right thing to be doing. It is adding value. It is making the boat go faster. So, the key question is, do you have the right recipe? Are the ingredients the right ingredients, and are they put together in the most effective way to get the best possible result? As I said earlier, the idea is easy but in practice it’s harder. Let’s look at a few very simple every day examples.

What are the key ingredients I need to get the job done, and how well am I doing it?

Writing documents:

Assuming the blog, proposal or document is the right thing to be doing, what goes into the recipe?

  • Do I have the right equipment? Typing on a tablet keyboard given the size of my hands, and hunched over a small screen, is probably not the most efficient approach for me.
  • How am I dealing with distractions like emails and my phone? I’ve just turned them both off!
  • Am I in the right place? Is the middle of the office the right place to be sitting to concentrate? I think I would work better in a meeting room.
  • How good is my typing? My four-finger typing seems ok, but given the amount of time that I’m going to spend typing over the next 10 – 20 years or so, I’m not sure it’s good enough.
  • Do I spend enough time on the structure at the beginning?
  • How clear is my language and does my grammar help people to understand the ideas that I want to get across?
  • Do I have the right templates set up on my laptop to make it as easy as possible for me to format what I’m doing?

And the list can go on.


It seems as though much of corporate Britain, Europe and the US spend large amounts of time in meetings – some people spend as much as 80% of their working weeks attending them. So how good are we? Are we better at contributing to meeting than we were a year ago? What are the ingredients?

  • Agendas – how clear are you on the purpose for your meetings before you attend to ensure that you’re ready and you know that it’s worth you being there?
  • How good are you at listening?
  • How concise are you?
  • How eloquent and persuasive are you?
  • Are you one of those people that has to add to every point made?
  • How good are you at ensuring that the agenda is stuck to?
  • How good are you at maintaining your concentration?
  • How good are you at summarising and checking for a common understanding?
  • How good are you at leaving the meetings that aren’t relevant?

Leadership makes or breaks teams and organisations. Some of us might have been on leadership courses, we should know what the ingredients are – so how well do we:

  • Set and communicate the vision so that everyone knows what it is
  • Communicate a clear strategy that everyone understands
  • Engage and inspire employees through understanding what they want to achieve
  • Set the tone and culture though our own actions
  • Develop people so that they can take on more complex tasks or greater responsibility
  • Manage the processes and delivery of the goals

How about a personal challenge like running a half marathon? How well do we understand and work on the different ingredients here?

  • The number of training sessions required
  • The length and intensity of the sessions to develop power and / or stamina
  • Equipment / running shoes
  • How effective is our stride length, arm movement, head position etc?
  • Post training recovery

Improving the ingredients

Understanding what the ingredients are in detail may not happen at once as it can take time to raise our awareness and get really granular. Judging honestly how well we perform the current ingredients is certainly easier with feedback from others, but simply scoring yourself on a scale of 1 to 10 a few times can help raise further awareness.

Understanding how we can do things better and actually making the changes is where it can get even harder. Understanding my keyboard isn’t an optimum size is pretty straight forward and knowing how to change it doesn’t require me to be a genius, but understanding how to improve my grammar to make my documents easier to read is much harder. Being more concise in meetings may take a bit of effort but being more persuasive is an art form in itself, and as for developing my team so that they can take more responsibility, I simply don’t have time!

Desire and courage

At the age of 45 learning to type properly or improve my communication style seems like a pain and will take a lot of effort and time. To type using all 10 fingers will probably mean that in the short term my typing will be slower – do I really have the energy and perseverance to see it though?

It will be time consuming and it might be frustrating at times to figure out what the marginal gains are that we can change, and then work out how to do things differently. This is why it has to be important enough to do.

I’m lucky enough to work with lots of different businesses and trends can be easy to see. The majority of people are working harder. People are putting in more hours, technology allows us to do more, but it also means that some people never leave work. However, the quality of our work isn’t necessarily going up. We are just working harder.

Under Sir David Brailsford’s guidance the British Cycling team had a ruthless approach to marginal gains. Under Sir Clive Woodward, the England Rugby team obsessed about the ‘one percenters’. While I was rowing we did the same thing. Most of Team GB has the same approach, they obsess about finding the next set of small things that they can do better. Sports teams take marginal gain seriously because the margin in the results is so clear and so painful to be on the wrong side of, they also know that there is a limit to the amount of physical training that people can do.

Perhaps in business we don’t obsess in the same way because the results are harder to see, we have less connection to the results and it is less painful to on the wrong side of a bad results. We can also keep working harder and harder, but at what cost? We don’t need to obsess about marginal gains but if we took them seriously in our own performance, could we have more of our time back?

I don’t know what will give you the desire and the courage to do things differently. To spend a little time working out how you lead your team or organisation one percent better next week, how you can be one percent more impactful when you speak to people, or how you can save hours and hours over the year by being a few percent better at running meetings.

The steps that you need to take to start

The concept of marginal gains, continuous improvement or being performance focused is easy. In reality, it’s hard, but not impossible:

  1. Work out why it’s worth doing. What’s in it for you? Is it about winning? About being more effective with your time or be proud that you’re as good as you can be?
  2. Start with the easy things. There are probably a number of areas where you’re not using all the knowledge and skill that you have. Start here.
  3. Pick areas that will deliver quick wins.
  4. When you have the two, three or four areas that you want to improve, at the end of a meeting, at the end of the day give yourself three minutes to review your performance in the area you want to improve. On a scale of 1 to 10 how well did you do? What worked well, what can you do better next time? Keep your reviews short and sharp.
  5. Get help. Who can you ask to support and help you, to give you feedback or hold you to account?

All the best!


For a greater understanding on how to get curious about your own recipe, read the Process Driven chapter in our book – Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? Or call the team on 020 3870 7088 to hear about our High Performance Programmes that we run to help individuals, teams and organisations improve performance.

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