Carl Chapman, associate & head of workplace health, Barnett Waddingham discusses how improving small aspects in a workforce can impact overall business performance


In 2012, Dave Brailsford, performance director of British Cycling, discussed the concept of the aggregation of marginal gains. Speaking to the BBC, he said: 'The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke 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.”

He set himself with the target of a British cyclist winning the Tour de France within 5 years. They did it in three. As evidential as it gets, this concept worked extremely well and it’s one that can be applied beyond the sporting world.

Although the Greeks played a big role in the sporting world by founding the ancient Olympics, they also are significant when it comes to wellbeing. Eudaimonia; a word penned by the Greek philosopher Aristotle over 2,300 years ago, roughly translates to mean ‘human flourishing’. 

Eudaimonia or human flourishing in an organisation needs to be something beyond the usual tick box type approach which provides little more than free fruit and gym memberships. In reality, we need to consider what is preventing our employees from flourishing both personally and professionally. Companies often use similar wellbeing strategies and spend money on benchmarking to make themselves look similar to their competitors when really, they should spend their time and money trying to be different. Each organisation is different and spending money on making a strategy unique, relevant and pertinent is a better way to stand out from your competitors.

It can often be easy to overestimate the importance of how working on small parts can create the bigger picture. This is what Brailsford’s concept of marginal gains elaborates on and he explains it as “the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do.” In simple terms related to work, it refers to the idea that if you look for small improvements in areas such as productivity, engagement, absenteeism and many more, there will be a significant impact overall on business performance.

People often think that a change needs to be massive but what only few understand is that making small tweaks is a good way to improve business performance. However, the improvements do need to be determined by the analysis at the front end. We’re very meticulous in our consultancy and we always do an analysis at the front end because it’s something companies need to do to in order to understand what the problem areas are. Once you understand what the risks are or the issues that exist within the workforce, it’s easier to tackle them and make those marginal gains.

We frequently convince ourselves that change needs to be somewhat large and visible, for any goal, but as a result, we put pressure on ourselves to try and achieve something that may not always be attainable. With thorough analysis we are able to determine what the ‘quick wins’ are and focus on those initially with the bigger projects following on in due course. After all if the quick wins combined achieve significant enhancements in business performance then the case is already written for the bigger projects.

The truth of the matter is that by improving just “1 percent” in each area of business performance will be meaningful for the organisation in the long run. 

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