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Dave Brailsford and the aggregation of marginal gains

April 15, 2014

Sir Dave Brailsford has announced that he is standing down as Performance Director of British Cycling to concentrate on running professional cycling outfit Team Sky. Brailsford has been instrumental in leading a period of unrivalled success for Great Britain, winning eight gold medals at the last three Olympics, and has transformed the sport during his 10-year tenure.

Since taking charge of Team Sky in 2009 alongside his British Cycling role, Brailsford has masterminded Tour de France wins for Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013. The success of Team Sky has taken more and more of his time, leading to his decision to concentrate his efforts on the professional road-racing team.

Brailsford’s success as British Cycling Performance Director has been across all categories of competition –individual road time trials, Keirins, Team Sprint, Team Pursuit and Omnium – developing riders who have now become household names – Bradley Wiggin, Chris Hoy,Mark Cavendish, Ed Clancy,Victoria Pendleton and Laura Trott.

Brailsford joined British Cycling in 1997 on the back of lottery funding and took over as Performance Director in 2003. He revolutionised the sport with his attention to detail, notably with his focus on the context of ‘marginal gains’, which brought Team GB 30 Olympic medals between 2004 and 2012. He was also instrumental in establishing the Manchester Velodrome, an Olympic-standard track as the home of British Cycling.

Brailsford’s philosophy of ‘marginal gains’ came from the idea that if you break 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.

As well as looking at traditional components of success such as physical fitness and tactics, Brailsford’s approach focused on a more holistic strategy, embracing technological developments and athlete psychology. He is noted for his emphasis on constant measuring and monitoring of key statistics such as cyclists’ power output, and developing training interventions which target any observed weaknesses, however minor.

Brailsford is a keen student of management technique and attributed his Olympic success to the skills and knowledge he learnt whilst studying for his MBA at Sheffield Hallam University. Moneyball, a book written by Michael Lewis, also left an impression on him. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics baseball team in US Major League Baseball. Beane recognised that the way baseball players were assessed was flawed, based on traditional, outdated indicators.

Beane brought a refreshing, clean review of the standard thought processes that had developed over a period of time but had remain unchanged. In baseball, they talk about a player having ‘the full set’ if they are good at certain things. Beane stood back and said he wasn’t going to go with conventional wisdom.

Beane’s focus was on a team based analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive baseball team, which informed Brailsford’s own analytical approach to team selection. What we do at the Velodrome is all about winning or losing. We just spend our time thinking about how to go faster. If a rider isn’t going well, how do we sort it out? That is what occupies our lives.

Brailsford took Beane’s viewpoint and revolutionised the approach to team building into an analytical approach based on a series of hypotheses to determine the trajectory of a professional cyclist’s career potential. He identified four stages in the level of performance, two stages in each of Professional and World Tour categories. The other dimension of performance was rider age, in five-year milestones at 20 to 35.

Brailsford plotted the trajectory of a rider’s career, peaking around aged 29, and a relative ranking based on dimensions and attributes of overall performance. There are different stages, as riders go from phase to phase. It aims to stimulate the asking of a series of questions: what does it mean in terms of potential, the coaching and support needed and performance potential?

As Brailsford says: We have split the phases, broadly speaking, into riders who we can support in Pro Continental races, riders who can podium in Pro Continental races, riders who can support in World Tour races and riders who can podium in World Tour races, who are your top guys. For the older guys the aim is to try to flatten out the curve so that they can continue performing at a high level for longer.

For a hi-res pic of the graph, click here

Brailsford explains the five life stages of rider potential and its application to team selection:

1. Riders recruited for what we believe they can do in the future You’re betting on the future. You want to concentrate your coaching on these guys. The key here is to get people who are ahead of the curve – performing at a higher level for their age. This is the area we want to invest in. This is where we concentrate our coaching and development.

2. Current top performers Riders who can deliver big results and who are in the peak of their career.

3. Proven performers – but who are beyond their peak If they can still do a job they still deserve their place on the team. Guys here don’t need coaching, as such. They still need support but we are not developing their talent, we are prolonging their careers.

4. Once you get down here, it’s time to say goodbye Is it worth having an older guy, who can podium at Pro Continental level but not at the bigger races? Probably not.

5. Riders in this area are borderline As you get older, the potential for improvement disappears and so it’s much more a judgement call. A rider might bring something to the team in terms of his personality that makes him a good guy to have around.

Aligned to the analytics of team selection, ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ is Brailsford’s catchphrase. It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in every single thing you do. That’s what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain – potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It’s not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Brailsford’s phenomenal success in track cycling, and which is now being applied to road cycling. So what does the philosophy of marginal gains look like exactly? To be the very best they can be so that they perform when it matters.

In 1997, when lottery funding was introduced, British cycling had no real ‘system’ in place. A structure was established by the newly appointed performance director Peter Keen, who coached Chris Boardman to an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, and Keen also had a clear vision: to become the world’s number one track cycling team.

That seemed a far-fetched ambition ten years ago, but by the time Brailsford succeeded Keen they were on their way to achieving the goal. By the 2008 World Championships in Manchester, the British team was dominant, and they confirmed their pre-eminence in Beijing, winning seven of the ten Olympic gold medals available on the track – and winning gold on the road, too, thanks to Nicole Cooke in the women’s road race.

In Cooke’s success there were several examples of the ‘marginal gains’ approach. The first was in her attire. She was not wearing the traditional road shirt and shorts. She was wearing a one-piece skinsuit typically favoured by time trialists and track riders. Why? Because she believed that its greater aerodynamics properties and comfort could give her a marginal advantage.

A second example was Cooke’s choice of equipment – she used ultra-light tyres, of the type favoured by track riders. It was a risk – they are more vulnerable to punctures, especially in rainy conditions – but one that she considered worth taking.

Another calculated gamble was Cooke’s approach to the final corner, which led into the hill that climbed to the finish. Approaching this corner she communicated by radio with the team car that she was worried that, in the wet, using the ultra-light tyres, there was a risk of crashing.

A crash would have spelled the end of her challenge for victory. So she decided to take the corner slowly, carefully, losing several lengths to her breakaway companions, but calculating that she could make up the difference. Which she did, winning a memorable sprint to become the first British road cyclist to win Olympic gold.

The skinsuit did not win Cooke the gold medal. The tyres did not win her the gold medal. Nor did her cautious negotiation of the final corner. But taken together, alongside her training and racing programme, the support from her team-mates, and her attention to many other small details, it all added up to a winning advantage.

Brailsford and his backroom team examine every single detail right down to the pillows used by cyclists to sleep on, installed seat warmers on the bikes for muscle conditioning, and how the riders wash their hands. His appointment of Dr Steve Peters – described by Brailsford as ‘the best appointment I’ve ever made’ – helped riders control the fears, anxieties and negative thoughts and that has been key. See an earlier dna blog regarding ‘the Chimp Paradox’

So how do we take Brailsford’s philosophy for creating a World Class cycling team into a development framework for the people and team in your business? Here are a few thoughts:

Set audacious goals In 2009 Brailsford set out to win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years. No British rider had finished in the top three in the previous 98 attempts, so this inconceivable goal was ridiculed. They achieved it in three years with Bradley Wiggins in 2012 – and followed this up with Chris Froome’s victory in 2013.

Focus Olympic Gold, winning the Tour. Ignore distractions and focus everyone and everything on the goal.

Get a performance mind set Even as he crossed the Tour finish line and before punching the air with joy and pride, Wiggins punched a button on his bike computer to log the ride data. He ha a performance mind-set.

Be relentless Many of Brailsford’s ideas took time to work out, but he relentlessly pursued the tiniest gains in everything – the bikes, fitness, training regimes, clothing, teamwork, nutrition, strategy, mindset.

Instil learning into habits Rigorously implementing what has been learned, no matter how small, is not an option for Brailsford. Once they got the best they had the discipline to hold on to it and put it into ‘business as usual’

People (rider) centred philosophy Training and developing people so they are the best they can be. Bradley Wiggins reshaped his physique by losing 8kg in bodyweight and Mark Cavendish vastly improved his climbing ability to enable him to support fellow team members and to get himself into more sprint finishes. It’s not about the bike, it’s about the rider.

Teamwork Road races are nearly always team events and every member knows their role and is committed to supporting each other and the leader to achieve the goal.

Plan, strategise and stay the course Being flexible and adapting to change and new knowledge is essential, but so is having that core vision and strategic intent of what you want to achieve and how you will get there. Brailsford never waivered from the vision: to become the world’s number one track cycling team with British Cycling, and with Team Sky, to win a Tour.

So whilst much of the philosophy and approach is still held confidentially by Brailsford, you can distil his thinking into application for a business context to take individual and team performance to the next level:

  • Have you identified what the next level of success looks like for each individual and the collective team in your business?
  • How often do you sit with your team and review how you’re performing together – examining what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.
  • Have you identified with your team what the marginal gains are for the way you perform individually, and together?
  • How often do you solicit feedback about your leadership performance from your team – what’s working or not working about how you perform?
  • Do you see your role as leader to direct or to support your team? Are you asking and listening or focussing too much on telling?

Disciplined and rigorous process thinking, continuous improvement and a people centred philosophy. The aggregation of marginal gains Brailsford achieved brought together a wide range of incremental improvements, and had the discipline to implement and make them count. If it worked for Team GB’s cycling team, what could it do for you to identify the marginal gains for you and your team?

This blog is my own work, but I’ve drawn upon informative pieces from Denis Taylor at The Hidden Office, Team Sky and The Guardian web sites.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. The Healthy Fellow permalink
    April 15, 2014 6:05 am

    Great post, check out my blog for inspiration on living a healthy good life! My latest post is on stress!

  2. April 24, 2014 4:13 pm

    Great read Ian, I’ve always thought Brailsford’s ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ rigour was a good model for business. Shame you beat us to the blog post!

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