The 1% marginal gains rule
There has been quite a bit of buzz on the so-called 1% marginal gains rule.
This “rule” became famous after Dave Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling, set about breaking down the objective of winning races into its component parts.
The basic concept is easy: if we work on improving a mere 1% a day – or a week, or else – then the cumulative gain would be massive.
Nothing new, really.
Is the 1% marginal gain rule a recent concept? I don’t believe so.
If we think about anything we do in our lives, a tiny bit of knowledge is added to our brain every day, since the day we are born.
Our whole life is a continuous process during which marginal gains are stacked, one on top of the other.
Very seldom we are lucky enough to be gifted with an enlightening, life-changing, revolutionary, piece of knowledge. The rest of our lives are built upon that micro-steps stairway.
Newborns start from scratch, with only their instinct to be fed, get rest, take some cuddles.
Then they start learning, one small thing after the other, and become gradually able to figure out how to sit, move, talk, eat solid food, read, write, etc.
It all happens in small, often imperceptible, steps.
At first, none of those small steps seems to make any big difference.
But then, one day, children learn to walk and although it seems to be a sudden change, it was instead part of a process.
Small steps lead to milestones.
Why is it powerful?
It works more or less like the compound interest: a small percentage gain every year can make our wealth grow faster than it seems even possible.
You won’t probably even notice it after one or even five years.
But then wait ten years. Then another ten. And when you are thirty years older you will be grateful to your younger self for taking the long-sighted decision of saving some money each month, steadily.
Whatever their life or career goals are, people who learn and improve something every day, will get there. Or very close, at least.
The Broken Windows Theory
I see the famous “broken windows theory” as the very opposite of the 1% marginal gains rule.
Translating this theory to the workplace, if there is no constant effort in making things better, then the whole company culture is failing and technical debt starts to pile up, employees get used to bad practices, artifacts and processes do not get documented, etc.
Simply put, if no one cares, no one will care.
Eventually, the whole building collapses or, at the very least, it will require a massive amount of maintenance just to restore it to a habitable state.
Leave it better than you found it
This old concept is the worst enemy of the aforementioned Broken Windows theory, and at the same time a very good friend of the marginal gain rule.
The idea is simple and everyone knows about it; however, how many people choose to apply it to their lives or jobs?
Whenever anyone identifies something that can be improved, they should improve it themselves, if they are able to do it and know how to do it.
If the change requires non-trivial effort and there may be other priorities, the suggestion should be taken to the stakeholders, putting benefits and effort on the table, thus delegating the choice on whether and when to fix.
But I have so much to do! I don’t have time to work on small things!
And this is the biggest trap many people fall into.
If we don’t set aside some time to make small improvements to our artifacts (systems, code, documentation, etc.) and/or processes, we will be always be limping.
Continuous improvement is one of the reasons why I always like to fill up to 80% of my teams’ capacity during planning: 20% will be allocated for the unexpected, plus improvements.
The snowball effect
There is another way to look at the marginal gain rule.
How about we consider it a “snowball effect”, instead?
Small improvements may appear not very significant at the beginning, but as they grow in number, the quality of life and work becomes better and better.
Eventually, the power of the changes gains momentum, and our lives and jobs turn from vicious circles into an energizing flywheel effect.
When that happens in the workplace, contributions will come from many members of the team, as they will be aligned with the dominant culture.
It will be the leaders’ duty, to make sure that their team members do not steer away from that culture, but the effort to maintain it will be lighter compared to what was necessary to initiate it.
- Instil a culture of continuous improvement.
- Facilitate cooperation, reduce gatekeeping.
- A wrong culture is harder to change early on, which makes small steps easier to digest.
- Once a few steps ahead have been taken, making further changes becomes easier.
- Keep nurturing the culture by always pushing team members to improve the system.
- Prioritize changes based on impact and effort: there is no need to wait months to make a change that takes a few hours to complete.
- There is no need to disrupt the current planning to jump on improvements; do not forget to make them part of the future plan and commit to a timeline. And no, “at some point in the future” is not a good framework.