The aggregation of marginal increments

When I interviewed British Olympic Association Chairman Lord Moynihan for my book Decide, he told me a story about the Athens Olympics – the Games before he took over: ”I’ve got pillowcases with ‘0.545’ written on them. At Athens Kelly Holmes won gold medals at both 800 and 1500 metres. The men’s 4×100 got a gold. Chris Hoy won his first gold, which was the 1km time trial. Our coxless four nearly always delivers, and they got a gold. So we had five gold medals. Their collected time if you add all their finals together was 12 minutes and six seconds. But the aggregate difference between them and the silver medallists was just 0.545 seconds.”

Our cycling supremo Dave Brailsford did numerous interviews after the stunning triumphs of Team GB in the Velodrome. How did this success come about? It was the aggregation of marginal increments, said Brailsford.

There’s a lesson here – beyond cycling, and beyond the Olympic Games. When we set ourselves goals and make big decisions, we tend to have blue sky ambitions and big picture visions. Yet so often real progress comes from small changes and relatively modest improvements, that are still significant enough to give us competitive advantage.

Thinking small – but positively – can pay big dividends.