For the better part of a century, the hapless British Cycling team may as well have been named the Chicago Cubs, Buffalo Bills, even the Bad News Bears. Then something happened …
In a word, the team was dreadful.
From 1908-2003, British riders had claimed just one Olympic gold medal and they’d fared even worse in cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France. Over the course of a century and a decade, no British cyclist had ever won the grueling 21-stage race that covers 2,200 miles in 23 days over the Alps and Pyrenees mountain ranges each July. In fact, they seldom even contended in individual stages. They were so bad that one of the world’s top bike manufacturers refused to sell to the British team for fear any association with cycling world’s laughingstock would taint their brand’s image and negatively impact sales.
Again, they were that dreadful.
Then along came a gentleman named Dave Brailsford to assume the role of Performance Director with a long-range goal of turning misery into medals. Suffice to say, Brailsford was either a glutton for punishment … or knew something no one else did.
What he brought to the team was a new philosophy based on “the aggregation of marginal gains” – a fancy term for miniscule, oftentimes imperceptible day-to-day improvement in everything the team did to prepare itself for competition. And I mean everything.
Brailsford said, “I knew if I could think through everything that goes into cycling and improve it by 1% each day, we will see a significant increase when you put them all together.” Therein lies the aggregation part.
Bike saddles [seats] were redesigned to make them more comfortable. Alcohol was rubbed on the tires for a stronger grip over terrain. Riders were told to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain optimum muscle temperature while riding and wore biosensors to monitor each individual rider’s response to a particular workout. Various fabrics were tested in a wind tunnel and outdoor riders switched to indoor racing suits which were lighter and more aerodynamic.
There’s more …
Brailsford and his team of coaches and advisors sought to find 1% improvement opportunities in areas often overlooked. They tested various massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They brought in a surgeon to teach each rider best practices in handwashing to reduce the chances of getting sick. They determined the specific type of pillow and mattress that provided the best night’s sleep for each individual rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white to help them spot tiny bits of dust that would ordinarily go unnoticed but could degrade performance of the finely tuned bikes.
An astonishing transformation!
As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than a rider down the Champs Elysée on the Tour de France’s final day. Within five years, British Cycling became dominant on the international circuit, ruling both road and indoor, track-based competitions. They won an astounding 60% of the of the gold medals in cycling at the 2008 Olympic Summer Games in Beijing. Four years later, back home in London, the Brits set nine Olympic records and seven world records. Also in 2012, rider Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The next year, teammate Chris Froome won and would win again in 2015, 2016 and 2017, giving the Brits five Tour de France victories in six years, an unprecedented run!
In the span 2007-2017, British Cycling won 178 world championships, 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals, and five Tour de France titles in what is widely regarded as the greatest run in the sport’s long history.
[NOTE: Admittedly, there have been accusations and investigations into British Cycling activities banned by cycling’s international governing federation – some true, others disproved – but you get the point: Tiny improvement in all that we do each day yields significant results when you stick with the program.]
How do we apply this to what we do?
I share this rags-to-riches story with you because the “aggregation of marginal gains” — or more simply put, “Get 1% better every day” – is a universally applicable concept. It doesn’t matter if you’re a salesman or a surgeon, an engineer or an electrician, a plumber or a President, we all can find ways to improve what we do a little bit each day. There is no ceiling, no declaration of perfection when it comes to striving for higher levels of excellence.
A little closer to home, the meetings and events industry [indeed, the entire hospitality industry] lost a ton of talent over the past 2+ years during the pandemic as programs were cancelled, postponed, or metamorphosed into hybrid events. According to a May survey conducted by U.S. Travel Association, the Leisure & Hospitality employment sector is far behind in its post-pandemic recovery of lost [and desperately needed] workers. Among the top 14 employment sectors, L&H ranked 13th. Only mining was worse. There are currently 1.4 million hospitality jobs that need to be filled to return to employment levels seen in 2019 before COVID hit.
Many seasoned and skilled planners elected to exit the workplace, switch industries or retire altogether. These are the people who were expert when it came to negotiating contracts, knowing where concessions could be had, managing hotel room blocks and attrition, gaining favorable pricing on food, beverage and décor, etc. We now have fewer senior-level planners and more planners who are younger, less experienced, and are honing their skills on the fly. To these folks I would say, this is your opportunity to apply the 1% better concept and ascend in the industry. It’s an inadvertent passing of the torch so take advantage of it!
And to clients, I would respectfully ask you to please be 1% more patient each day. Not only are many of our industry’s workers greener than we’ve been in years, in some cases their hands are tied when it comes to vendors who service the meetings and events industry. Dynami recently put in a request to a chair vendor for an upcoming program and we were told they couldn’t fill the request until sometime in July – long after the program will have adjourned – due to a shortage of labor.
In another case, we created a custom event app for a program and asked the app designer/developer to be onsite for a full day before the program began to ensure the app was functioning properly. He agreed and then his flight was canceled. Instead of being onsite at 8AM, he wouldn’t even arrive until 4:30PM. It’s maddening, yes, but out of his and our control.
[God bless the airlines, they’ve had it as tough as anyone the past couple of years but they’ve gotten smarter as a result. Instead of releasing half-full planes and losing money, they now study data amassed by industry-specific algorithms and know more precisely when to cancel a flight. But there’s good news within the bad news: Travelers are getting cancellation notifications earlier than in the past so they can at least get a head start on rebooking travel.]
When did a double-order become a half-order?
Foodservice has been impacted, too. It’s not unusual to see quick-service restaurants only taking and fulfilling orders over the phone, online or through the drive-thru. Their dining rooms are closed due to a scarcity of workers. Cooks are in short supply, too, and ghost kitchens are preparing and packaging pre-cooked items for 7-8 different brands under one roof.
On a personal note, my wife was traveling on business in another state recently and the hotel’s dining outlets were all closed. I went to an online-ordering service and asked for a meal with double-chicken since she wanted a bit more protein. When the meal was delivered, what passed as a double-order of grilled chicken equated to half a single order. I’d already paid for the meal, added a decent tip and paid the delivery fee. Again, it’s maddening but it’s the world we live in right now.
“The future belongs to the discontented” is a quote often attributed to great minds like Thomas Edison, Oscar Wilde, the Dalai Lama and others. When you’re discontented, you’re automatically in continuous-improvement mode. This is when and where to apply the “aggregation of marginal gains”. It is said that no one ever forgets how to ride a bike. I would add, there’s always a better way to ride that bike [metaphorically speaking] and it all begins with seeking miniscule improvement in all that we do, day in and day out.
Cheers to 1% improvement each day!