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Can 1% performance improvement get you the Gold?

With the Olympics recently completed, we are reminded of what can be achieved through effective teamwork and a philosophy of continuous improvement.

Perhaps the most famous example of this was the transformation of the British cycling team. The shift began in 2003 when Sir Dave Brailsford took over as performance director. At the time, Britain had endured nearly 100 year’s of mediocrity with one Olympic medal and nothing to show for the Tour de France.

Brailsford’s strategy to turn their performance around was simple: if you break down each aspect of cycling and improve it by 1%, the cumulative benefits would be extraordinary. Known as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” this strategy led to a transformation in the team’s performance. Between 2007 and 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic gold medals and an impressive five Tour de France victories, in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.

But what does this have to do with leading a successful business in a time of complexity?

Keeping it simple. Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced everyday. Many organisations fail to reach the podium not by doing nothing, but by trying to do too much. When employees are already feeling overwhelmed by the daily pressures of pandemic life, they are unlikely to buy-in and get behind change. By creating focus and commitment to the small things that are achievable (1% gains), you can create a positive energy that yields significant results in the long term.

Irrespective of your position in the team, preparing for and executing races like the Tour de France is about managing uncertainties and dealing with change. Similarly, to successfully navigate the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world we live in, leaders need to be excellent at leading change and their people need to be change ready.

Four key lessons for leaders and their teams:

1. Replace volatility with vision-led performance

High-performing teams know where they are going and believe in what they are trying to achieve. Define a simple yet compelling vision, underpinned by your values, and simplify this to a single page so that everyone understands. Make this a part of everyday conversation to create a strong sense of purpose, buy-in and direction in the business.

2. Counter uncertainty with understanding

Brailsford experienced failure at the outset, until identifying critical success factors and focusing improvements around these. It’s the same in business: once the destination is defined, clear strategic plans are needed to get there. Break your strategic goals down into achievable chunks (horizons) with clearly prioritised targets to indicate what success looks like and how it will be measured. Align teams, cross-functionally, to these goals and engage them in the achievement of targets.

3. React to complexity with clarity

Understanding the behavioural psychology behind performance and the environment needed to optimise it was another key principle in Brailsford’s approach. It is understanding this ‘HOW’ a team works together to achieve performance, that differentiates top-performing teams and businesses. Unfortunately, day-to-day pressures often force teams and leaders to focus on ‘WHAT’ is needed to get the job done.

Embedding structured and values-based dialogue within and across teams is an effective vehicle to drive both the behaviour (HOW) and performance (WHAT) required to execute your strategy. A key component of this is structured team meetings which follow a distinct cycle of four steps:

  • Review: Look back on the previous period. Focusing on goals vs. achievements and how the team ‘Showed Up’ in terms of living the values. Recognise and celebrate success, acknowledge failures and identify quick fixes and process improvements.

  • Goals and Actions: Ensure goals are aligned throughout the business; utilise performance scorecards to set a clear agenda; and ensure targets are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-based).

  • Team Fitness: Empower your team to take ownership of their performance while fostering a healthy spirit of collaboration and camaraderie. Create opportunities for learning in team meetings, encouraging participation and innovation around improvement.

  • Execution: Walk the floor. Spend time engaging, coaching and developing your team. Remove obstacles, prioritise key objectives and create a sense of urgency around achievement.

4. Fight ambiguity with agility

Brailsford talks about ‘contagious culture’: the principle of continuous improvement owned by the team and implemented with energy, focus and discipline. The same applies to business teams. If people understand the “bigger picture”, how they fit in and where their highest points of contribution are, they can handle change with confidence and agility, innovate with your goals in mind and remain motivated to get better results.

When engaging everyone in regular goal-setting, devising action plans and reviewing performance, it is surprising how quickly structured meetings can entrench highly effective team habits.

The combination of a change-ready mindset and alignment to common goals builds a climate conducive to strategy execution and continuous improvement. When aggregated, the power of these marginal gains can be a force multiplier in your business.

How can we help your business become 1% better every day?

At GameChangers we bring you lessons from sports and boardroom legends delivered through powerful sports analogies and storytelling that ensure an immersive and memorable experience. This unique combination of expertise inspires and equips leaders with the skills and tools to create a contagious culture and optimise team performance.

Whatever your needs, our Winning Culture Model can be adapted to create a unique leadership or team journey. Connect with us to find out how this novel approach can help you create alignment to common goals, strengthen the connections within your team and make improvements to unleash the performance potential of your people.

About the author: Hennie Brittz, Co-founder and Director at GameChangers

Hennie has spent 12 years in business and consulting, conceptualising, designing and implementing large-scale performance improvement processes. With a passion for performance, he also heads up the Marketing and Technology department at 2Collaborate, a Management Consultancy that creates value for businesses and their people by focusing, aligning and unleashing their potential for high-performance.

Get to know more about Hennie on LinkedIn

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