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The 1% Solution - Transforming Organizations with the Concept of “Marginal Gains”

2021 Giro d’Italia Stage 15 leading group

On my feed this morning, Nanci York-Brar and her story appeared.  As an executive at ScotiaBank, she shared her successful war against cancer. Somehow this struggle reminded me of other wars happening each day. We wage battle when we have a health scare. Alternatively, there is the war going on within each of us to be our best version of ourselves as a business leader. There is also the battle each executive faces to transform their organization.

Nanci York-Brar focused on improving herself just 1% each day as part of her journey in training for an #ironman marathon and fighting her way out of cancer. This story is inspiring on so many levels. In addition to making me think about my own struggles with health -remembering my near-death cycling accident last year. It also got me to thinking about the organizations our firm, Knowsys Group, has the honour to help transform.

The 1% Solution is an intriguing concept. It was also coined by the British cycling team coach Dave Brailsford around 2003. He took the British cycling team from 100 years of mediocrity to dominating road and cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games (Beijing), where they won over 60% of all gold medals available and the Tour de France five times thereafter.

The concept is simple. It’s called the aggregation of marginal gains. If you break everything down that goes into riding a bike (or managing an organization), and then improve it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you integrate all the pieces. Dave Brailsford and his coaches started making small adjustments on the bikes themselves, then on the equipment and techniques that the riders used, and on the rider’s life habits.

Dave Brailsford and  Nanci York-Brar’s stories reminded me of this concept and how its linked to organizational transformation as well.

When Knowsys Group gets called in to help transform and/or restructure an organization we can be dealing with a history of major dysfunction or that of small weaknesses or gaps. For those organizations with “small problems”, they all add-up over the years and become the cultural fabric of those organizations. After going through a diagnostic process, we determine what the root causes are for the organization not performing optimally, and then work with the client to determine the most viable series of prioritized improvements and structural changes. The key thing that we recommend is chewing off this daunting list of changes in small bites, with a timing that the organization can digest.

We believe that if the CEO, CIO, etc. can instill a culture of marginal gains in the management team, then more than half of the battle is won. Once you have a leadership constantly striving for small improvements, this becomes a positive contagion for the organization as a whole to be focused on. Of course, all these things must be measurable. If you can’t measure the improvement, it is impossible to chart a course forward. So performance measurement is a critical piece of the 1% solution.

There will always be self-appointed gatekeepers who are resistant to change. These are the people who are either comfortable in the current comfort zone or those who care deeply about the organization and fear that change will cause harm. By focusing on constant small improvements, even change resistors can be brought along and can become part of a wave of momentum, creating incredible achievement and an organization of “champions”!

Mary-Ann Massad
CEO and Managing Partner, Knowsys Group

Author: Sherrie