Taking The Marginal Road To Innovation


Adi Gaskell

May 9, 2016

The British cycling team has become something of a poster child for management thinkers over the past few years. Their record haul of gold medals at both the Beijing and London Olympics, together with their tremendous success on the road with Team Sky, have prompted many to laud their approach to work.

The success of the team is largely founded on the theory of marginal gains that has seeped into the public consciousness. The concept is a simple, yet very effective one. It suggests that we are better off attempting to make a 1% improvement in 100 areas than a 100% improvement in one area.

Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

The process is trumpeted in the recently published Committed Teams, with the authors suggesting that great teams, such as the British cyclists, succeed largely due to their ability to make these small, iterative improvements.

The logic is hard to dispute. After all, it’s easier to make those small improvements that usually don’t require vast changes in direction or managerial approval, or even huge budgets and many hours. Add these little things up and you get substantial change and improvement.

Advice From The Most Innovative Leaders

Marginal Gains

Of course, there have been numerous process improvement approaches down the years, and whilst they have achieved success, they often struggle to provide value in complex and rapidly changing environments as they focus on what you do already rather than on what you might need to do in future.

It’s perhaps an approach that would be favored by the “planners” identified by William Easterly, who like to have things arranged logically beforehand rather than the ‘seekers’ who tend to experiment and adapt to circumstances on the fly. It’s akin to the army that looks great on the parade ground but a mess on the battlefield.

In cycling terms, you can see this approach working well in the relatively controlled environment of the veledrome, but less well in the more complex and uncertain territory of a road race.

Whilst the team have achieved considerable success on the road since their formation in 2009, these triumphs have largely been confined to stage races that are considerably easier to control with a consistent strategy. The more chaotic spring classics have been a much harder nut to crack, with their first victory coming in the recent Liege-Bastogne-Liege race.

Dealing With Uncertainty

The unpredictable nature of these races was typified by this years Paris Roubaix race, where riders race over 250 kilometers across northern France, with a good chunk of those over cobbled roads that you would flinch at taking your car over.

Ordinarily such races are quiet in the early kilometers, but this year there was action from the off. Early crashes caused a split in the group that saw pre-race favorites Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan distanced, and with roughly 50 kilometers to go the team had four riders in the lead group, including team leader Luke Rowe.

Then, disaster struck. As he lead the group round a corner, race rookie Gianni Moscon crashed, with Rowe going head first over the top of him.  A few kilometers later, another corner saw fellow Italian Salvatore Puccio also crash. Rowe managed to struggle back to the group, but an immensely strong position had been reduced significantly in a matter of minutes in a way that it would be impossible to have predicted at the outset.

Despite all of these mishaps, Englishman Ian Stannard, the fourth Team Sky rider in the group, managed to slug it out with the fellow leaders and come in a very credible third place.

Managing Risk

The gradual way that the team has come to terms with this kind of racing suggests that the team are themselves modifying and experimenting with their core approach.

For instance, the team are renowned for turning to non-cycling domains for insights into how things might be improved. Tim Kerrison, their Head of Athlete Performance, famously comes from a swimming background, and the insights he brought from that field helped shape the squads approach to training and racing.

It’s a good example of the kind of recombination that researchers believe forms the bulk of innovation today.  This is where breakthroughs in one domain are applied in new areas, and studies suggest that roughly 40% of patents are recombinant in nature.

Another crucial factor in their success is the real passion for what they do that runs throughout the team. When I met the team’s Head of Innovation, Simon Jones, at the recent Chief Innovation Officers Summit in London, he told me how important it is for staff and riders to have a real love for cycling that can drive their attempts to get better on a constant basis.

Jones reflected that the approach is less about trying to control matters as it is to understand and prioritize certain key aspects of performance, and to then try and manage risks as best as they can.

So, for instance, he suggested that the mishaps the team suffered at Paris-Roubaix were a consequence of prioritising physical conditioning, over course reconnaissance, which created an unduly high risk of such crashes occurring. These risks were mitigated to some effect by innovative rear suspension systems.

With their duck broken in the challenging Spring Classic races, it may well be that the team have cracked the ability to perform well in both predictable and unpredictable circumstances with equal efficiency, and with it their ability to provide lessons for us to apply in our own lives may have some legs yet.

Agile Thinking

It’s an approach that is best summed up by Yale’s James C. Scott who outlined a number of key steps you can take to ensure your thinking remains rooted in the unique circumstances in which it has to be applied.

• Take small steps – It’s very difficult to see the consequences of our actions before we make them, so take small steps and it’s easier to see cause and effect.

• Favor reversibility – By taking small steps, it’s easier to undo things that don’t work out.

• Plan on surprises – Ensure you accommodate surprises and the unexpected in your plans.

• Factor in human inventiveness – Always remember that regardless of the best laid plans, those acting them out will almost certainly find ways to modify and tinker with them on the fly (and this is a good thing).

If you can manage this then you might have some hope of creating the kind of dual operating system that allows you to be both efficient and innovative.

This article was written by Adi Gaskell from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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