In a recent interview with Entrepreneur Magazine, Steven Bartlett (Founder of Social Chain and star of TV show Dragons’ Den) said that he and his team swear by the philosophy of marginal gains. Sometimes called ‘the 1% mentality’, it’s the idea that focusing on incremental, seemingly insignificant progress in your business or entrepreneurial journey can have a major impact on long term success.
We all like to hear stories about huge, unexpected achievements. About the giant leaps that a company or innovator takes – catapulting them into the spotlight. And we hear a lot of that stuff, because it makes for good media stories; no one wants to read about the day-to-day of building a business when they can instead read about one-incredible-moment-that-changed-everything-forever.
Except…we do. We want to hear about the day-to-day stuff. Because the reality is that success rarely happens out of nowhere – and when you know that, you can continue building on your ideas, piece by piece, with the confidence that each of those pieces will help you achieve your biggest goals.
How to take a marginal gains approach to business
Maybe you’re an entrepreneur starting out on a journey with a new idea. Or maybe you’re working within an established company, and you need to find a new way to inspire and motivate your team. Either way, adopting a ‘marginal gains’ approach could increase your chances of hitting (and exceeding) targets over the coming months and years.
Think about your personal life over the last couple of years. How have you changed? What’s different about your life today, compared to two years ago?
And then consider whether those changes happened overnight, or whether they occurred gradually as a result of small, almost imperceptible shifts. Most of the time when we look back at how things have changed, we didn’t make a huge effort to completely overhaul our lives in one go. But hindsight allows us to see that lots of small adjustments added up and helped us grow in a significant way.
The same principal works in business.
In his book Atomic Habits, author James Clear wrote about the power of the marginal gains approach. He argued that habits are more important than goals, because they’re the way you practise success – until success becomes a part of your (or your company’s) DNA. For example, you might set the goal to grow your network and build more interest in your idea or your business. Or you could commit to the habit of reaching out to one new connection on LinkedIn every day to tell them about what you’re doing, and start building a relationship with them.
Which would have the biggest impact: setting the goal, or committing to the habit?
This philosophy can be applied to all areas of your business, from pricing to idea development, and everything in between. PwC pointed out that raising prices by 1% each quarter delivers an 11% impact on profit, without causing loss of business due to a large, painful price jump for customers. And in an interview with CNBC, Sir Dave Brailsford (former Performance Director of British Cycling) noted that a mindset built on marginal gains can help you become mentally tough – if you’re focusing on the small stuff, you won’t be beaten down when you’re not experiencing huge quantum leaps in progress. You’ll keep going. And then eventually, you’ll win.
We do like quantum leaps too…
Don’t get us wrong – we love it when everything falls into place so perfectly that an entrepreneur or a business suddenly leaps forwards into world-changing success. There’s definitely space in the tech industry for quantum leaps. But the chances of arriving at a moment like that are much higher if you’re making those 1% adjustments to build incremental shifts, one day at a time.
Bartlett shared a story about going to the dentist when he was 14, and bragging that his teeth were perfect even though he didn’t brush them often. The dentist told him, “if you don’t brush your teeth today, your teeth will be fine. If you don’t brush your teeth tomorrow, your teeth will be fine. But if you don’t brush your teeth every day for the next five years, in five years’ time you’re going to be sitting here screaming as a pull and drill all the rotten ones out.”
The dentist was right. Small, consistent steps are easy to underestimate, and it’s easy to let them slide when you’re pursuing the big wins. But if you commit to consistency and trust in the process, those small steps will lead to much bigger things.