Entrance view from the inside of the building.

It's the little things – marginal gains for achieving maximum success

04 March 2016

Marginal gains in sport.  Nothing new in 2016 perhaps, but it was revolutionary back in 1998 when the British men's rowing eight set out to improve on a dismal run of performances with a goal to win gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

The story of that journey – of that race – provided the narrative behind the second in GC Magazine's Dissenting Perspectives talks.  And, importantly, how that thinking can be applied to business.

Ben Hunt-Davis had spent seven years losing races, culminating in a seventh place finish in the World Championships in Cologne in 1998.  It was clear to him and the rest of the crew that if they wanted to perform better it wasn't going to be about training harder it was going to be about training differently, training smarter: "If you do what you've always done you'll get what you've always got," he said.

A year later, coming back into the crew after 12 months off – during which he'd lost his third straight Boat Race – Andrew Lindsay, now CEO of FTSE250 company Utility Warehouse, saw immediately that the mentality had changed: "There was a very clear focus on two things: what are the elements that actually matter to making the boat go faster? And how can we make sure we do all those things a bit better?"

And that's something that he has – and that we all can – apply to business, and to our roles within the businesses we work for.  If we break down what contributes to the successful running of our businesses into its constituent parts, identify the elements which are absolutely key, and then focus on doing them really well, we'll achieve success.

Sounds easy. But to make it work, and for it to really make a difference, there has to be complete clarity and openness, and everyone has to be committed to making it happen.  In sport, where there are relatively few people involved – nine in a boat crew, if you count the cox – it's not so hard. In business, more so. Key, then, is to communicate across your organisation a very clear mission, a simple objective, or a single reference point that you can always go back to under almost any circumstance.  At Utility Warehouse that is: "To be the nation's most trusted utilities supplier – the one you'd recommend to your mum."  What would that reference point be for your organisation?  For the legal team within your organisation?  Or for you as an individual?

In Andrew and Ben's crew, it was encapsulated in a simple question:  "Will it make the boat go faster?" If the answer to that question was "no" then, quite simply, they wouldn't do it.

Andrew told the story of the Olympic opening ceremony in Sydney, a day he'd dreamed about for years: walking round the stadium with your teammates; flags waving; eyes of the world on you; proud to be British.  But he and the rest of the crew ended up watching it on TV from the athletes' village while the rest of the rowing squad – Redgrave and Pinsent included – headed to the stadium. Why? Quite simply because Ben knew, from experience in Atlanta 1996, that the trade-off was six hours on your feet with no food and no water – hardly the best preparation if you're racing in three days, and certainly not something that will make the boat go faster.

Years before it became commonplace they employed a psychologist, engaged a dietician, borrowed thinking from engineering and industry, all with a singular aim of making a boat go faster. While everyone else was focusing on strength, Ben, Andrew and the rest of the crew were turning conventional wisdom on its head and, ultimately, proving that a "me too" strategy is rarely a recipe for success.

As they found, culture is important, too. If you're committed to doing things differently, to breaking the mould, you have to quickly build a culture of openness and trust, and an acceptance that criticism – embedded in an environment of continuous improvement – is constructive. Ben talked about the importance of focusing on performance, and not results. You can still win a race without actually performing that well, as the crew proved in the World Championships leading up to the Olympics. But if you just focus on the results, and don't properly analyse your performance every time, then you'll never improve. You'll never move forward.

It was a fascinating insight into how a relentless focus on doing all the little things that much better can lead to a significant improvement in performance, not just in sport but also in business. And it tees us up nicely for the third in the series, where founder and CEO of Metro Bank Anthony Thomson will be picking up the theme of breaking the mould.

Oh, and if you have 5'33" spare, you can watch the race here, complete with jingoistic commentary.