It's really hard to make massive gains in skill and performance and talent, especially overnight. But it's fairly easy to make small changes every day.
That was the approach taken in 2009 by Sir Dave Brailsford, who said he could build Britain's first-ever Tour de France winning team in four years with a three-pronged approach.
One core element was strategy. Another was human performance--obviously on the bike, but also in terms of leveraging behavioral psychology and optimizing the "work" environment.
The third was continuous improvement, or what Brailsford called the "aggregate of marginal gains." His plan was to break down each individual component that could go into making a world-class cyclist and cycling team, and improve each of those elements by 1 percent.
Not 20 percent. Or 10 percent. Or even 5 percent.
Just 1 percent.
In short? Think small, not big. Think progression, not perfection. Think small improvements to create a major improvement.
As Brailsford said:
By experimenting in a wind tunnel, we searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analyzing the mechanic's area in the team truck, we discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So we painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. We hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition. We were precise about food preparation. We brought our own mattresses and pillows so our athletes could sleep in the same posture every night.
We searched for small improvements everywhere and found countless opportunities. Taken together, we felt they gave us a competitive advantage.
Three years later, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France (and an Olympic gold medal). Chris Froome won the Tour de France in three of the next four years.
In spite of the fact the team initially ignored core functions to focus on peripheral functions.
"You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place," he said, "and then [my italics] focus your improvements around them. That was a harsh lesson."
Like focusing on making small improvement to operational efficiencies when sales don't even cover fixed costs. Or focusing on making small improvements to logistics and fulfillment when product quality consistently fails to meet standard.
The rule of 1 percent and you.
Start by focusing on tasks you frequently perform.
Sure, you may make an improvement that saves only 10 seconds, but if you perform that task dozens of times a day, the aggregate gain is considerable.
Maybe that means finding ways to incrementally improve how you manage your email. Or incrementally improve your use of online collaboration platforms. Or incrementally improve -- better yet, automate -- making recurring decisions. Or incrementally improve how you run meetings. (Here's a not-so-incremental improvement tip: Start by having many fewer meetings.)
Break down the component parts of any larger task or pursuit. Then make small but meaningful improvements to each of those parts.
That way you don't have to get a lot better at one big thing.
You can just get a tiny bit better at a whole lot of little things.
And so can your team.
The rule of 1 percent and your team.
As Brailfsord noted, seeking incremental gains quickly became contagious.
"There's something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains," Brailsford said. "People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group. Our team became a very positive place to be."
Partly that's because we all want to feel we are a meaningful part of something bigger than ourselves, and that our contributions are valued. However small, the more contributions you can make the more valued you can feel.
But the contagious nature -- in a good way -- of embracing the rule of 1 percent also taps into a powerful aspect of motivation.
Improvement feels good. Improvement is fulfilling. Fulfillment provides the motivation to seek further improvement. The result is an endless cycle of effort, success, fulfillment, motivation, effort, success.
Increase sales by 20 percent? For some companies, that's a goal that might take months or years to accomplish.
But finding a way to improve the CRM data entry accuracy might take only minutes. Finding a way to to improve RFP turnaround times might take only minutes. Finding a way to improve the speed and quality of responses to certain types of customer inquiries might take only minutes.
Yet the gains can last forever.
And, when aggregated with all the other 1 percent improvements you make, could make a substantial difference for your business.
And for you.