Greater Manchester Centre for Voluntary Organisation

Olympic Cycling, Competitiveness and the Aggregation of Marginal Gains

I think we’ve all been impressed with the domination of the GB & NI team in the cycling competitions. Even when the sports governing body deliberately changed the rules to avoid one nation dominating and even withdrew some of the competitions we were successful in. Apart from the obvious talent of the competitors credit has also been given to the team manager, Dave Brailsford and I was quite taken with the approach he has taken:

"Brailsford is not a coach. He is a meticulous organiser who hires talented coaches and encourages them to think imaginatively, searching for ideas from unrelated areas of sport and industry.


It was Brailsford who, four years ago, first dropped the key phrase "aggregation of marginal gains" into a conversation with the Guardian's cycling correspondent, while attempting to explain the team's philosophy of making small improvements add up to a significant gain in performance. On Tuesday he could be heard patiently going through it again on breakfast TV, itemising some of the details to which the team pay special attention, such as the electrically heated "hot pants" that kept the leg muscles of Hoy and Pendleton warm between the races, inspired by Formula One's tyre warmers."

The GB & NI cycling team have not been able to gain such a dominant competitive advantage by any single significant technique but by making many small improvements. Other sporting coaches have achieved similar levels of success through this attention to detail such as Clive Woodward with the English Rugby team and indeed in football management such an approach is commonplace amongst successful teams.

There’s a clear lesson here for those of us adapting to a more competitive environment. There isn’t going to be a single change we can make to significantly improve our organisations and interventions - if there were then surely we would have already made them – but we certainly need to start to pay more attention to the smaller gains we can make across a range of our activities. It turns out my mum was right when she would often repeat to me "look after the pennies, the pounds will look after themselves"

I also believe that there’s a lesson here for wider social policy. In previous posts I have discussed the major challenges facing the public sector as demand increases whilst resources decline and the need for radical service reform in order to meet this. I would argue that to really make a significant shift in social outcomes then we also need to generate many marginal gains from across the entire system. This runs counter to many attempts we see that seek to achieve gains through aggregation of services across larger areas and trying to create large scale common approaches. Scaling up activities may enable us to create some broad efficiencies of scale but a more diverse range of service providers may be better positioned to generate large numbers of small gains.

Our sector should be well placed to deliver marginal gains but to be able to do so we need to actually demonstrate these gains as well as better co-ordinate activity. Stronger partnership delivery can help here but we all need to better understand where we’re strong and should focus our efforts but also where others are strong and better placed to deliver. It may seem counterintuitive to withdraw from areas of service provision at this time when our organisations are under great stress but if we don’t choose to change we may find change thrust upon us.

Of course this final conclusion clearly has little direct relevance to Olympic cycling and so I can relax in the satisfaction of a job well done, assured that I now am at one with almost everyone else commenting  on social affairs in using the games as an excuse to make a point!