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Marginal gains can accumulate to work wonders for your business.

What the one-percenters can do for your digital activities – and your business

Sporting coaches and commentators can often be heard preaching about “one-percenters” – tiny, incremental efforts by individuals that make teams better.

The phrase has become so commonplace in football that it borders on being cliché. But it actually references an extremely important part of business practice.

Marginal gains are a part of our everyday lives. We don’t always think about them – even when are seeking them – but we all engage in them.

The concept of the “aggregation of marginal gains” has been around for centuries but the man credited with triggering the recent popularity of the phrase is cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford.

Riding marginal gains to big success

After becoming programme director and then performance director of British Cycling he championed a philosophy of marginal gains based on 1 per cent increments. His theory was that a series of small one per cent gains would combine to create a significant overall improvement – and what followed was a focus on everything from teams using anti-bacterial gel to prevent downtime due to illness, to microscopic refinements in bikes and training regimes.

For Brailsford the key was to focus on the sum of all the small gains rather than large-scale changes. Businesses can take the same approach by adopting one per cent principles over more traditional waterfall processes. In other words, look for the one per cent gains over and over, rather than try to find and develop a “perfect” change that likely produces an impact smaller than you had anticipated.

Under Brailsford’s leadership, Great Britain won two gold medals at the 2004 Olympics (the best performance for nearly 100 years) and followed up with eight at both the 2008 and 2012 Games.

Flying high with marginal gains

When we look to transplant the theory of marginal gains from sport to the corporate world, no example stands out more than the work of Robert Crandall. Crandall, an executive at American Airlines faced the unenviable task in the 1980s of taking the struggling carrier through a deep depression and executing a $200 million cost-cutting program.

Crandall realised he could make sweeping and disruptive changes by cutting aircraft numbers, removing popular routes and reducing staffing. Instead he started by removing one olive from every in-flight salad – and the result was a saving of $100,000 per year. He repeated the thinking time and again of making marginal changes and marginal improvements to result in cumulative marginal gains. Refresher towels were removed from short journeys and the less popular grapefruit juice was taken off the menu on in-flight services.

In a more creative example of marginal gains, XEROX implemented a global employee program called “adopt a plant”. Employees became responsible for watering the office plant, saving a staggering $200,000 in watering services per year.

Meanwhile, a marketing agency in the US replaced bottled water with filtered taps, saving $100,000 per year, and an American fixtures supplier installed doormats at every entry of its premise, cutting its cleaning costs by $70,000.

What marginal gains can mean to you

Everything about these examples can be applied to your digital activities, an area where data analytics can identify in no uncertain terms the total impact of marginal gains.

Understanding how people navigate your website, for example, can result in huge conversion rate improvements. By simply reordering the services on your websites to fit with patterns of use, you can improve users’ journeys, reduce site drop-off and encourage them to navigate towards pages of value to you.

The individual improvements might only be incremental. But as Sir Dave Brailsford and others have proved, together they can count for a whole lot.

Glenn Langridge is an expert in digital campaigning and marketing across multiple platforms, including social media. Contact Glenn.

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