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How can the foundations of Olympic success influence business?

How can we apply the marginal gains philosophy to organisations? It is widely acknowledged that marginal gains, the small changes in an athlete’s behaviour amplified across lots of areas, has been one of the key mechanisms that has helped Team GB go from languishing 36th in the Atlanta Olympics medal table to second in Rio with their best medal haul in 108 years. We’ve found a couple of examples that we would like to share, with some ideas that follow on how this could be applied to your business. The first example is from the sport of hockey.

Thinking Thursday – A marginal gain for hockey players

Danny Kerry, performance director of Britain’s women’s hockey team, introduced the concept of ‘Thinking Thursday’, which he believes helped his team win gold in such spectacular fashion.

Every Thursday for a whole year each player was put into an extremely fatigued state, and then asked to think very hard at the same time. An approach to training that forced players to consistently make excellent decisions in a fatigued state, just, as it transpired, like the conditions of an end of tournament penalty shoot-out.

Making decisions based on what’s important right now

What would be the equivalent of ‘Thinking Thursday’ in the workplace? What if you were to apply the hockey team’s approach to making decision under pressure in your role?

Here is an example of how from a workshop we ran recently: We were running a session on resilience last week with a professional services organisation, and one of the delegates said that she was really struggling to think clearly and make business decisions under pressure. She told me that she felt stuck and overwhelmed like she was just going round and round in circles but not getting anywhere. This reminded me of something Einstein said, ‘no problem can be solved from the same level of thinking that created it’.

So going round and round in circles was keeping her thinking at the same logical level as that which had created the problem in the first place. I found myself saying to her that her feeling of being overwhelmed meant that everything seemed important, which also paradoxically meant that nothing was important.

In order to help her break out of this overwhelming stuckness, my response to her was to ask, ‘what is important to you right now?’ For me, the solution to in any problem lies in the question: what’s important right now?

When you are making a decision under pressure, why not try it.

Accelerating recovery – A marginal gain for boxers

The coaches from Team GB boxing, based in Sheffield, focused on improving sleep quality. They replaced all their single beds with doubles, following research by the English Institute for Sport, along with switching sheets, duvets and pillows to breathable, quick-drying fabrics. These small changes resulted in the boxers, on average, sleeping 24 minutes longer each night, which over the course of an Olympic cycle added up to as much as 29 or 30 days extra sleep. Vitally important, we thought, when you’re repeatedly getting punched in the face.

Recovering time in meetings: Clarifying intentions

As for elite athletes, time is a precious resource for organisations too. One of the companies we have worked with a lot over the past year said that the work we have done with them has fundamentally changed the way they run their business. What they have told us is that this comes down to one word: Intention.

When I asked the chief executive, ‘how do you mean?’ he said that the extra time invested at the start of a meeting to set the intentions for the session ensured that everyone attending felt included, involved and engaged in the outcomes. Framing their meetings in this way meant they were all clear and considerably more effective at achieving their intended outcomes together. He reckoned that on average they saved at least ten minutes in every hour from being clear about their intentions.

Just think about this for a moment. Each meeting has 5-8 people in it, multiplied by a ten minutes saving per person, accumulated over the week, or month, or year; how much of a time saving would your team or organisation make by being clear on your intentions?

These little changes all contribute to the bigger picture. Focusing on the marginal gains philosophy enables you, your employees and your organisation to develop into a more powerful and efficient workforce. As we witnessed this summer, these small changes in an athlete’s behaviour amplified across multiple areas is a philosophy that is recognised as one of the key mechanisms that lead to Team GB’s success. Apply the marginal gains approach to the workplace, and your organisation could be in the running for gold as well!

Ben Houghton is CEO at Noggin


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