Marginal achievement: What business can learn from sport

Written by
James Meachin

21 Oct 2016

21 Oct 2016 • by James Meachin

It’s important that we are inspired by other disciplines in order to create a more fulfilling and effective workplace. With Team GB’s recent success at the Olympics and Paralympics – what can we learn from some of the country’s most decorated athletes?

Marginal gains

The principle of ‘marginal gains’ has been pioneered in the sporting world, notably by British cycling coach, Sir Dave Brailsford. Brailsford has used marginal gains – introducing very small changes into the equipment, training, lifestyles and behaviours of top athletes – to generate greater performance returns than larger ‘one-off’ changes. Although each change is modest on its own, cumulatively, they have led to a step-change in results.

For example, in applying ‘marginal gains’, Brailsford and his team introduced changes to the way athletes washed their hands, creating a more thorough approach that minimised the risk of bacteria causing illnesses, which can derail vital training sessions. Along a similar vein, athletes were encouraged to bring their own pillows when staying in hotels to maximise the chances of having a good night’s sleep. This was vital for aiding recovery.

So how can HR departments learn from this approach? There are three core elements to developing ‘marginal gains’ in the workplace:

1) Be data driven

A data-centric approach is critical in identifying opportunities for improvement. By intelligently gathering and analysing information, processes can be better understood and more easily enhanced. For example, recruitment processes rely on rating scales to evaluate candidate performance. The better the rating scale works, the more effective the selection decisions will be. 

At Pearn Kandola, we recently examined assessment ratings across thousands of candidates, looking at how the wording of performance indicators affected scores. Where candidate scores were clustered in the centre of the scale, or skewed to one extreme, we knew that the indicators were doing a poor job of differentiating – ideally a rating scale will clearly distinguish between candidates with different levels of ability. By comparing the performance indicators that worked very well with those that were less effective, we identified clear themes which have driven improvements in the way we design rating scales and, ultimately, in the way that candidates are assessed.

2) Look to other disciplines

Applying a different lens to a familiar situation can do wonders, and a common theme for ‘marginal gains’ is the benefit of introducing insights from one discipline to drive improvements in another. For example McLaren, the British motor racing company, has formed a partnership with GlaxoSmithKline - GSK is learning from the technology developed by McLaren’s Formula 1 team, adapting its biotelemetry technologies from racing cars into better monitoring systems for patients. So what insights might HR gather from other disciplines? As recruiters seek to better understand and attract candidates, there is an opportunity to collaborate with marketing functions where sophisticated customer segmentation modelling has been in place for years. Gradate recruiters are increasingly understanding candidates through a generational lens (“What do millennials want from work?”), and the next step is to develop much more nuanced insights about different ‘segments’ of candidates to improve communication, selection and on-boarding processes.

3) Be agile

Trying new approaches is key to learning. Often, HR functions deliver large scale, highly homogenous processes that make changes difficult and high-risk. In contrast, ‘marginal gains’ are developed through experimentation, trial and error. There is an opportunity for HR practitioners to introduce an agile approach that allow for different approaches to be tested, feedback to be quickly gathered, and iterative change to take root. 

For example, are staff engagement surveys completed most often when accessed on a desk-top computer, tablet or smartphone? What happens if the survey length is halved? If the introductory message from the CEO is a paragraph of text or a 30 second video? Varied approaches can be trialled with selected cohorts, allowing differences to be examined and marginal gains to be seized.

4) Small change, big difference

In the past, organisations have tended to focus on one or two big changes that will generate big results. With ‘marginal gains’ improvements accumulate over time, leading to much more achievable (and likely) results. In fact, most significant achievements aren’t standalone events, but the sum of all the small moments when we chose to do something one or two per cent better.