Designing High Performance Teams Through Marginal Gains

Creating a high-performance team is a matter of design; within that is the philosophy of marginal gains. This is a method of reaching high-performance levels by constantly making small, incremental improvements. When these small improvements are considered as a whole, great progress can be seen to have been made. This approach became well known after the Performance Director for British Cycling, David Brailsford, noted he used it over the London 2012 Summer Olympics, to get the Team GB Track Cycling to their highest possible performance levels. This effort paid off with the team winning 7 gold medals in that arena.

This is not to say that the philosophy of marginal gains is a new one; in fact, it was first noticed in the late 19th century when Wilhelm Steinitz became the world’s first chess champion. He explained that his advantage was due to his application of a methodical system for marginal gains, which he incorporated into his playing strategy. Since then, many high performers across a multitude of industries have used the same method to make the most of their team and the opportunities presented to them. The method was referred to in the early days as the Steinitz System.


Applying Marginal Gains to Business

Applying this philosophy to business would see the business first note what they were lacking, and where small differences could be made which would be minutely beneficial in their own right. This would include the optimization of the basic aspects of the work, but also a concentration on the smaller details as well. By searching to make small improvements on at least 1% of the overall team structure, large gains can pay off in the future.

In 2016 economists Daniel Garcia-Macia, Chang-Tai Hsieh and Peter Klenow sought to quantify different kinds of innovation in the US economy. They concluded in their research that the majority of productivity growth came from existing companies improving existing products, rather than new businesses or products.

”Many high performers across a multitude of industries have used the same method to make the most of their team and the opportunities presented to them.”

All aspects of the business and its overall performance should be examined to make a list of these finer points, in marginal areas that often get overlooked. Things that make employees feel better, and by default, make them work better, such as good coffee on hand and comfortable chairs to work from are top on the list. Other potential areas could be a relaxation area for employees to take a few minutes for themselves which is separate from the lunch area, so that there is a possibility for an employee to take a breather, collect their thoughts, and continue to work, rather than being forced to work through when they would have produced more by having that extra few minutes of solace at work.

Teaching employees the most effective way to do things is also something that can produce high results; rather than expecting them to dig in and do their best, provide an example of how the company has found the process should be accomplished in the best and most fluid way. Technological advances are a must for improving the team and should be integrated ongoing as they appear on the market. This can be done by having a thorough review every month of all processes and taking on board whether any new product or service could help reach the end goal faster or easier, and implementing them when found.

In terms of how marginal gains can be incorporated within an organisation, which uses a strategic and systematic approach to management. This would start with noting where the team is at now, in order to plan for future changes. Metrics are created to track systematic, marginal gains, in all areas that contribute to employee performance. Analysing real time data and collecting it for future review will contribute to increased performance ability. Performance improvement of this nature is holistic and follows the approach taken by Team GB. This must be underpinned by employees having the skills and the willingness to succeed within the role, which would be in line with theories on performance management and high performance teams as set out in Katzenbach and Smith (2005). Elite teams have the commonality of incorporating an organisational culture which reflects the ongoing need for high performance.

”Elite teams have the commonality of incorporating an organisational culture which reflects the ongoing need for high performance”.

Applying the marginal gains theory to specific business goals might just help to realise your business growth ambitions. By breaking down your goals into component parts and making a 1% improvement in each, then, in aggregation, the impact will be substantial. Areas in business that can be improved substancially using this technique include leadership gains, technological gains and process gains.

Leadership Gains

Marginal gains in management can include changing the management process or the team environment, gradually to upgrade the overall process. The style of management can be reconsidered in light of the team dynamics and a list of goals can be set by management to reach a higher performance level.

Technological Gains

If your company does not have an IT department you should consider it an opportunity cost to hire the services of a subcontractor to review the computer systems which your business currently uses and consider any improvement that is suggested. With the increasingly fast nature of technological change, easier and faster systems are appearing all the time, which incorporate a high level of regulatory compliance within them such as for the GDPR. This will save a great deal of actual cost and employee hours in the future, so it is something that cannot be understated as important to affect a high performing team.

Process Gains

No matter what industry you are operating in, it is always worth taking a manufacturing and production line thought process when it comes to considering whether the current process is optimal or not. Consider the product or service that is the end result of your team’s labour and the amount of time it takes to reach that point. Write down every step along the way to take note of all factors which must be achieved to create the end result. Look at each step individually and consider whether it could be achieved faster through change, and if so, incorporate those changes.

Whether or not you avidly watch the sport of cycling, the 2016 London Olympics demonstrated the phenomenal success of the marginal gains theory. But this theory is not just applicable to sport; it’s being successfully implemented in many businesses with similiar levels of success. The challenge for businesses is to shrink the target, change the mindset, make the changes and reap the rewards.

Lincoln is one of the top recruitment agencies in Dublin, Ireland. We provide expert staffing, recruitment and outsourcing services to our clients and candidates. Our clients are from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, across multiple professional services industries including: Accounting & Finance, Financial Services, Legal, Information Technology, Consulting & Advisory, Marketing & Digital and HR. If you’d like to continue the discussion of high performance and going for that extra 1% when it comes to your business and leadership teams, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. 

Concepta Cadogan avatar
Director Accounting & Finance
+353 1 661 0444