Fifteen steps to implement Brailsford’s ‘theory of marginal gains’

For a number of years, Sir Dave Brailsford has spearheaded the track cycling revolution in Britain, helping turn the nation into a superpower. He is acknowledged as the ‘man who reinvented the wheel’. Brailsford is a fascinating man to study. He is an enigmatic presence, having developed a methodology and analysis to deliver truly world-class performance. He has a fierce reputation for making totally clinical and hard decisions.

When Brailsford became head of British Cycling in 2002, the team had almost no record of success: British cycling had only won a single gold medal in its 76-year history. Brailsford was instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for Great Britain.

Under his leadership, they won eight gold medals at three Olympics, and transformed the sport during his 10-year tenure as Performance Director of British Cycling. Since taking charge of Team Sky in 2009, Brailsford has masterminded Tour de France wins for Bradley Wiggins in 2012, and Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015.

Brailsford’s success has been across all categories of competition –individual road time trials, Keirins, Team Sprint, Team Pursuit and Omnium – developing riders who have now become household names – Bradley Wiggin, Chris Hoy, Chris Froome, Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy, Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott.

Brailsford joined British Cycling in 1997 on the back of lottery funding and took over as Performance Director in 2003. He revolutionised the sport with his attention to detail, notably with his focus on the context of ‘marginal gains’, which brought Team GB 30 Olympic medals between 2004 and 2012. He was also instrumental in establishing the Manchester Vélodrome, an Olympic-standard track as the home of British Cycling.

Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ came from the idea that if you break 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.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a more holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics such as cyclists’ power output, and developing training interventions which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

They implemented a number of improvements. By experimenting in a wind tunnel, he searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analysing the mechanics area in the team truck, he discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance, so they painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. He hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition – they also decided not to shake any hands during the Olympics.

What we do at the Vélodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford revolutionised the approach to team building into an analytical approach based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s career potential. He identified four stages in the level of performance, two stages in each of Professional and World Tour categories. The other dimension of performance was rider age, in five-year milestones at 20 to 35.

Brailsford plotted the trajectory of a rider’s career, peaking around aged 29, and a relative ranking based on dimensions and attributes of overall performance. There are different stages, as riders go from phase to phase. It aims to stimulate the asking of a series of questions: what does it mean in terms of potential, the coaching and support needed and performance potential?

What was the process for identifying these opportunities? Brailsford had three pillars to his approach, which he called the podium principles. The first one was strategy. The second was human performance with a focus on behavioural psychology and how to create an environment for optimum performance. The third principle was continuous improvement. Brailsford’s focus was clear: You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus improvements around them.

Aligned to the analytics of team selection, ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ is Brailsford’s core performance philosophy. It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards. Forget about perfection; focus on progression, and compound the improvements.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a sound bite but rather an approach that underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in track cycling, and which he then applied to road cycling. So what does the philosophy of marginal gains look like exactly? To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

So how do we take Brailsford’s approach for creating a world class cycling team into a development framework for the people and teams in your business? David Denyer, Professor
of Organisational Change and Director of Research at Cranfield University identified fifteen key steps from Brailsford’s philosophy to achieve peak performance, summarised as follows:

  1. Ensure clarity Brailsford attributes success to understanding what you are trying to win, being clear about the purpose, setting
an outcome that everyone buys into and ensuring absolute clarity concerning roles, responsibilities, structure and tactics.
  2. Create a ‘Podium Programme’ British Cycling aimed for medals, nothing less. Team Sky was equally bold – to win the Tour with a clean (drug-free) British rider within five years. The focus was on clear statements of success.
  3. Plan backwards Brailsford followed five key steps (i) prioritise and decide what you want to win because you can’t win everything (ii) figure out what it will take to
win (iii) work back from what you want to win to where you are today (iv) create a plan to close the gap (v) execute.
  4. Focus on process To ensure a win at the Beijing Olympics, it was calculated that an improvement
in time from over four minutes to under three minutes 55 seconds was needed. The resulting ‘3-55 programme’ for the team was summarised in a video. In Beijing, the team executed 3-55 (which had become the norm in training) and won gold.
  5. Get back to basics Tim Kerrison, Head of Performance Support argued for simplification saying the rider who generates the most power, for the longest period of time, while weighing as little as possible, and slipping efficiently through the air, usually wins the race. To win the Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins focused on altitude training, weight control and power output.
  6. Practice winning The top riders in Team Sky raced fewer days than their rivals and structured seasons to accommodate mid-season ‘training blocks’ in warm climates overseas. In 2012, purists argued that Wiggins had peaked too early in winning three week-long stage races prior to the Tour. Yet this was all part of the tactics. In those races the team trained to win by defending a lead.
  7. Aggregate Marginal Gains Focus on improving components that can significantly affect overall performance by just 1%. Examples included taking riders’ own mattresses and pillows to prevent neck and back problems when staying in hotels, and even training the team on how to wash their hands correctly to reduce the chance of infections.
  8. Maximise the latest technologies British Cycling had a small team known as the ‘secret squirrel club’ that was charged with finding technological innovations
to boost rider performance. The team would search for ways to
get marginal gains from using technological advances across sport, science, industry and the military. For example, riders benefited from electrically heated ‘hot pants’ as leg warmers that were inspired by Formula One’s tyre warmers.
  9. Conduct the orchestra This
is how Brailsford describes his approach to strategic leadership. He commented I don’t coach the riders directly. I coach a team of people, including coaches to coach the riders. Brailsford maintains that the most important members of the team are the riders, not the coaches or the management – We talked about taking the crown off the head of the coach and putting it on the head of the rider. First and foremost, I work for the riders.
  10. Support the support Team Sky was the first professional team that offered dedicated one-to-one coaching to all its riders, deciding that the split of investment in riders versus support should be 80/20 rather than usual 90/10 split in pro cycling. You’ll get more from a £900,000 rider with a coach than you would from a £1m rider without one was Brailsford’s rationale.
  11. Charter a team The British Cycling Team set its own team rules which included: respect
one another, watch each other’s backs, be honest with one another, respect team equipment and be on time. They also had the following motivational motto on team clothing and printed on every bike: This is the line. The line between winning and losing. Between failure and success. Between good and great. Between dreaming and believing. Between convention and innovation. Between head and heart.
It is a fine line.
It challenges everything we do.
And we ride it every day.
  12. Build a strong CORE This was Brailsford’s acronym to explain how success would be achieved: Commitment + Ownership + Responsibility = Excellence. This meant working only with people who have an intrinsic
drive towards achieving a goal (commitment), people who take ownership of their training and development and responsibility for their performance.
  13. Control your inner chimp Brailsford claims that the best appointment I’ve ever made was Steve Peters, a psychiatrist from Rampton high-security hospital. Peters worked with riders to pre-empt or control their ‘chimp’ – the emotional and irrational part of the brain, which has the potential to inhibit performance.
  14. Manage the ‘triangle of change’ To achieve change people must be a) committed to being
better b) psychologically minded (think that they can change) c) suffering enough to engage with change. If the first two are in place, Brailsford argues, it is possible to achieve change by either increasing consequence or reward.
  15. Stick to your principles Whilst some professional teams abandoned their tough drug policies for ‘truth and reconciliation’ following the Lance Armstrong scandal, Brailsford reinforced zero tolerance. Four senior members of staff left Team Sky having confessed to past involvement in doping. We prefer to compromise our performance rather than change our policy, says Brailsford.

So whilst much of the philosophy and approach is still held confidentially by Brailsford, you can distil his thinking into application for a business context to take individual and team performance to the next level:

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for each individual and the collective team in your business?
  • How often do you sit with your team and review how you’re performing together – examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • Have you identified with your team what the marginal gains are for the way you perform individually, and together?
  • How often do you solicit feedback about your leadership performance from your team – what’s working or not working about how you perform?
  • Do you see your role as leader to direct or to support your team? Are you asking and listening or focussing too much on telling?

Perhaps the most powerful benefit of the principle of marginal gains is that it creates a contagious enthusiasm. Everyone starts looking for ways to improve. There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains – Brailsford likened the bonhomie is similar to a scavenger hunt. People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group.  Our team became a very positive place to be.

One caveat is that the whole marginal gains approach doesn’t work if only half the team buy in. In that case, the search for small improvements will cause resentment. If everyone is committed, it removes the fear of being singled out. There’s mutual accountability, which is the basis of great teamwork.

Disciplined and rigorous process thinking, continuous improvement and a people centred philosophy. The aggregation of marginal gains Brailsford achieved brought together a wide range of incremental improvements, and had the discipline to implement and make them count. If it worked for Team GB and Team Sky cycling teams, what could it do for you to identify the marginal gains for you and your team?


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