Nick Wray Coaching

Professional Coaching for Organisations & Individuals

From a Gob full of sausage to a Gold medal? Coaching and incremental change…

high_res_matthew_syed_black_box_thinkingCoaching can help you achieve stretching goals. Yet you don’t always have to make a single massive change in order to do so.

The principle of marginal gains is an approach to change which works by making small, incremental improvements which –collectively — add up to something significant. A theme explored in Times’ journalist Matthew Syed’s excellent new book ‘Black Box Thinking: the surprising truth about success.’

For example, British Cycling team coach Dave Brailsford set a target of a one per cent increase in performance across a variety of areas.  Brailsford asked: “Can we make our bikes, helmets, clothes etc, each 1% more aerodynamic?”. Even if a gain is small (the principle of marginal gains argues), each adds up, overall, so that if your bike, helmet and clothes are each 1% less ‘draggy, then a rider (or team) will be 3% more efficient – aerodynamically – than it was before. So there’s a collective benefit of each small improvement on performance.

Do the same across nutrition, training, psychology, you name it, and it all adds up to significant improvement in overall performance, which can help you achieve your goal.

Not quite ‘slowly, slowly catchy monkey…’ (an annoying phrase sometimes used in my experience by managers to justify avoidance of progressing change), but an illustration, none the less, that small differences can add up to something really big and important, if you have an end goal in sight.

Takeru Kobayashi

‘Competitive Eater’ Takeru Kobayashi

In the case of the British Cycling team, the pay off was Olympic Gold Medals.  Takeru Kobayashi‘s aim, on the other hand, was to use marginal gains to optimise his hot dog eating technique (no really… there’s more here if you’re interested!) which allowed him to win Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York… Well remember, It’s your goal and — what’s important to you — that matters in coaching!

Equally, by analysing ‘failure’ individuals (and organisations) can use such learning as an incremental means to chart a future path to success. By asking questions like:

“Which bits of that project went wrong?” 

“What could we do to make a difference next time?”


The best software developer I know when asked “Why should we hire you?” says “experience of working on many failed projects…”

So whether it’s a Hot Dog eating competition, an Olympic Gold medal or a glittering prize of importance solely to you, remember you can still define a stretching goal, but there may well be lots of small ways, of little changes, you can discover, and which you can make — and take — to get there.

Want to discuss what’s next for you? Then drop me  a line, here.

There’s more on Matthew Syed’s ‘ Black Box Thinking’ here

There’s also a potted version of elements of Matthew’s book on the BBC News website here too.

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