Marginal Gains v Exceptional Gains

faster-horses “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted they’s have asked for faster horses”.  – Henry Ford

Steve Jobs & Henry Ford have understood the philosophy of exceptional gains probably better than anybody in else in business. 2 genuine visionaries who were not interested in making marginal improvements – they gazed into the future and saw something the rest of us couldn’t. The Henry Ford quote really sums it up for me; While it’s clear from both men that they didn’t hold much weight in what customers asked for, they were very much in the business of thinking about the impossible and then finding a way to make it happen.

Dave Brailsford,Performance Director of British cycling and mastermind behind back-to-back Tour De France victories & numerous Olympic Medals, takes a different approach. He has made famous the term marginal gains and to quote him;

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

Braislford puts so much weight in the marginal gains approach that its an actual job in the backroom team – Head of Marginal Gains.


But is their a balance? Most people have worked with teams where doing any sort of marginal improvement would be a big step forward. But if everybody is just looking at the marginal gains aren’t we likely to miss the exceptional ones? The world of business is littered with stories of companies seeking marginal gains and suddenly being left behind. While Nokia were busy trying to improve their predictive text software… somebody thought bigger and wanted to build a phone with only 1 button. Not all improvements come from small incremental improvements.

Supermarine_Spitfire_Mk_XVI_NRTim Harford (Undercover Economist) described a competition that the British Air Ministry held in the 1930s to find a new modern, single-seat fighter plane — an incredibly unusual request given that most fighter planes were two-seater to allow for one pilot and one gunner. There were lots of entries, but the a civil servant named Air Commodore Henry Cave-Browne-Cave decided to commission on design for £10,000 as a “most interesting experiment”. That plane turned out to be the Supermarine Spitfire.

Exceptional Gains in Analysis?

So while we all look for ways to progressively improve our performance and that of our team let’s not just concentrate on better ways to do what we currently do. If I had the answer I would be off developing it!! But while camera’s have got cheaper, laptops faster and software more accessible we have to consider these marginal gains. We could easily look back in 5 years time and laugh at what we have been doing, the same way people will laugh at the look and feel of a Nokia phone.

Faster ways to capture, code & analyse, finding better KPI’s and ways to present information are all important but they are not the only things we should be looking at. We should always be looking at marginal gains in everything we do but we need to keep an eye on the big improvements, maybe even those gains that seem unimaginable from today.


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