I first heard the intriguing title - Aggregation of Marginal Gains’ while talking to
my long term friend Gareth Killa. He was sharing the concept in the office,
after hearing the leader of the new ‘The Filling Station - Neath’ Stuart Bell do a short
preach on the subject in April 2018.
What did it mean ?
what was the value of the idea ?
how was this implemented ?
I personally felt stirred by the concept.
When I started to look into the subject I realised this is not new, it’s been around as an
idea for nearly a decade. It originally stemmed from the changes coach David Brailsford made to the training schedule of the British Tour de France cycle team in 2010 and then how he influenced as coach, the men’s rowing team in the 2012 UK Olympics.
I’ll write about the process Brailsford implemented shortly. What struck me immediately when I heard about the concept, is that as Christians, in fact Fathers, Mothers, Workers, Leaders or followers, we too often find ourselves trying to make big single changes to
aspects of our life style and leadership and the results often don’t work. Like
a New Years resolution that by the 17th of January fails to deliver it’s intended effect, so
we abandon it, jettison it into the oblivion that is our failure to then motivate ourselves to make any changes at all.
In my own walk, I’ve never had the ‘money needed’ to properly implement the dreams
of the full extent of the vision at the start. I’ve sometimes let that become paralysis of effort, either slowing down or stopping the steps of change needed in order to succeed.
During a prayer time I had some time ago, in the early hours of the morning, when faced with another night of elusive sleep, I just sensed the Lord whisper, ‘you are trying to do too much, there is power in the little things, the smallest effort can bring the biggest reward’.
I didn’t have answers that night as to what God meant. It seemed a riddle to me, but after a few years of chewing that over, (like a lingering question demanding an answer and in the light of this intriguing title) I now clearly see that determined, incremental change over time makes for massive improvements and long lasting benefit to what ever you apply the principle to.
There are a number of worthy contributors to this idea, each bringing their own take.
James Clear, J W Durrand, Am Batterham, GR Danjoux, J Smith, ZW Meng, R Lockyer,
T Dudderidge and of course the most visible in success David Brailsford. Each has their own view of reporting on the same outcome, but we credit them all for their view of the concept Brailsford energised.
So lets get to The Brailsford story.... In 2010, Dave Brailsford faced a very tough job: no British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France and as the new manager of Team Sky, he was tasked to change that. Instead, Brailsford sought to make small improvements
favouring incremental change over revolution in every area of performance – 1% improvements across the board – confident that the aggregation of these marginal gains would result in a significant overall result.
He sought to make improvements in some areas that may seem obvious:
Rider nutrition; how can the food/drink the riders eat be better? How can their eating/drinking times be optimised?
The training regime.
The set up of the bike; can the angle of the seat be slightly better?
Can tyres be found that offer the same performance but weigh a few grams less?
Other areas were less obvious sources of improvement:
Which pillows did riders favour for optimising sleep? A rested rider is a better rider.
What massage gel gives the most favourable results?
Insisting that riders always washed hands after going to the toilet, sneezing, etc. Less chance of infection or infecting colleagues.
By making marginal improvements across the board, Brailsford put himself and Team Sky on a path towards winning the Tour.
In 2012, Team Sky, through Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France. Team Sky won again in
2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017. They could have won in 2014 too had favourite, Chris Froome
not crashed out. It took some time for the results to show the effort, but the aggregation of marginal gains over that time made a significant difference to the legacy of Team Sky and of British cycling. Brailsford’s technique was also applied through to the coaching of the Men’s rowing team in the UK’s Olympics of 2012. Over 60% of the entire medals won in this
discipline, were taken by the team using this coaching principle. I wonder what would have happened, if he was put in charge of the whole British Olympic team, and had the tim
e to coach them through, I wonder what our final position in the medals table would have been ?
And so to the point.
What would life be like if we didn’t live trying to make big decisions, but instead focussed on lots of little ones ? In our spiritual lives we can see the same dilemma. We are often too busy to take time to pray, to read our Bibles, to fellowship, to debate, to learn to be disciples.
We have clues of God’s view. While there is the grandeur of scriptures like Romans 8, where the World is waiting for the Sons of God to be revealed, we also see God’s concern for the sparrows, for every hair on our head. God is intently focussed on the minute detail of our lives.
If we focussed on one small thing we could change for the better, one act which would make life easier, one small decision that would become a step in the right direction for the future, would we find change ? What if we took that approach for two days, a week, a month or for 100 days. What would our lives be like if we made 100 small daily changes?
Of course we’re human and are likely to fail, but hey, have go and another go the next day. Most things will work if sticking to the effort needed to make the change is small
er than the benefit created each day.
What marginal gains can we make? As in cycling, there are obvious ones:
A better quality prayer time.
Reading the Bible.
Setting time aside to do so each day.
Giving up bad food, replacing it with good food.
Moving away from negative media and increasing positive screen time.
There are less obvious ones too:
Aim to be more encouraging and avoid gossip.
Review our monthly payments, stop what you don’t use and give 20% of the saving to Church or a charity you love.
Work to show the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
Walking a mile with Jesus, prayer walking your community as often as possible.
Make sure to spend an intentional time each week with those around you, that you love.
So to close, you might never have won a gold medal, or the Tour de France, neither have I. We all have dreams and if we just adopted this very simple yet profound approach
we could walk forward in the destiny those dreams suggest. We would see a slow but steady improvement.
This is my 25th year of ministry, I decided to undertake a half time sabbatical this whole year - only working in the mornings and then giving the afternoons to rest, reading, walking, praying and trying this concept out. What has amazed me is that I expected to be so behind, to get bogged down in the disability of inactivity – the opposite has been true. I am more focussed, more thoughtful, more rested, my wife tells me, nicer to be around... I did think that giving up this time would have meant financial hardship, but again I’ve found in practice, because I review all our spending in new ways, we have
made decisions like going back to one car, taking the train places etc. cooking more than going out to eat, it all adds up to a new way of life.
Spiritually, I am finding my first love again. Praying more, reading more, opening my eyes to impacting sermons and exploring aspects truths of the Gospel I had never discovered.
It’s fair to say my choice to move to this way of thinking and living was not popular, it seemed to many ministry contacts that I was withdrawing. I didn’t jump for new projects the way I used to, I wasn’t swayed by the ongoing opportunity to climb the ladder
The choices have meant I’m refuelling, refining, researching and starting to press in to God in completely new ways. Ultimately each of us is different, the principle however remains the same. The biggest challenge common to us all, is to begin, to try, to give it a go. The Sky Cycling Team, and the rowing team in the Olympics saw success on unparalleled levels. My early experiences of this same process have been dramatic and life changing what would happen if you gave it a try ?