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Marginal gains – employing the rule of 1 percent

Why changing a little can affect a lot


If you have heard of ‘marginal gains’ then you have probably heard of Sir David Brailsford and the success he has had with the British Olympic Cycling Team and, also, Team INEOS (formerly Team Sky) in the world of professional cycling. His success was not borne out of huge changes – instead he employed the ‘Rule of 1 Percent’. By making lots of minor improvements, such as to the aerodynamics of the bike, the design of the helmet, the diet of the cyclists and their sleeping hygiene, this ultimately lead to winning the Tour de France seven times to date!

Jan Carlzon, former President of ailing Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) developed the ‘Rule of 1 Percent’. He said: “In order to succeed in business and differentiate yourself from competitors, you do not have to be 1000% better at one thing; you have to be 1% better at 1000 things!” It became a strategy that propelled the airline to be the top performer in virtually every aspect of business.

Study after study shows that 70% of large change initiatives fail. By contrast, there is much evidence supporting the Rule of 1 Percent – ‘the aggregation of marginal gain’. This is because of the way the human brain processes change and the way we adapt to new routines.

The Rule of 1 Percent

The Rule of 1 Percent makes achieving goals less overwhelming.

We often convince ourselves that change is only worthwhile if it’s big. We put pressure on ourselves to make ground-breaking improvements.

To use a personal example, I was keen to take up yoga. I planned to attend a class at least twice a week. However, as the weeks slipped past I was barely attending one class, let alone two. This change to the ‘schedule’ in my life wasn’t working. I wasn’t finding the time and I wasn’t making the effort. Therefore, I decided that I would do just three minutes of yoga every morning…just three minutes. And you know what? Four years later, I am still doing it. I have felt the cumulative benefits. It fits with my lifestyle and, importantly, it is something I have maintained…not another flash in the pan or passing fad.

Businesses spend millions each year on unsuccessful change programmes.  More often than not, it is the ‘people response’ which is the biggest reason for failure. For a lot of us, our brains are wired to sense change as a threat – a flight-fight response. Even if our ‘logical self’ can see the benefits of a change, our ‘emotional self’ can take a lot longer to come around.

It is less intimidating is to make change incremental – allowing new habits to bed-in.

Study after study shows that 70% of large change initiatives fail.

Implementing 1% improvements

Begin each morning asking yourself:

What can I do 1 percent better today?

Our clients love the Rule of 1 Percent as it makes implementing good practice less daunting. Think about it – if you get 1% better at something every day for a year – the compounded effect at the end of the year is an extra ordinarily 37 times better! (for the mathematicians, the calculation is 1.01365 )

So, what does a 1% improvement look like? It can be as simple as this: consider a team meeting. They can sometimes be a negative experience. So, at TWI, we decide to start the meetings with with each person giving a piece of good news. This dramatically changed the dynamics of our meetings, introducing positivity from the outset.

Now consider these:

  • What if you switched off smartphone alerts?
  • Or, attended a meeting without a phone?
  • Or, if you spend 10 minutes of your lunch break reading a book on an area you are keen to learn more about?

The important point is don’t promise too much to yourself – negotiate in your own mind what is plausible. Whilst none of these simple practices are rocket science,  they each make that important 1 percent difference which when aggregated together can be transformational!

Our Leadership and Negotiation trainings are packed full of ideas which can help your people identify small changes – those 1 percent improvements – which will make a big difference. Contact us to find out more.