If you visit the London office of the British Cycling team, you’ll notice a sign at the front door you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry. It simply says “Winning is our business” and it sends a clear message to everyone who enters: this organization is all about performance.
And performance is what they get. With the UK churning out two consecutive (and different) Tour de France winners and 16 gold medals in the recent London and Beijing Olympics, the “winning” statement seems to be rather accurate.
A significant amount of credit for both teams’ successes is (rightly) given to the Performance Director of British Cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford, who appears to be the common factor.
If you haven’t heard of Sir Dave, then it’s worth taking a moment to find out about his management philosophy and how he approaches the science of winning. He’s most famous for installing a focus on what the team calls “Marginal Gains” – breaking apart performance into small pieces and finding ways to improve all those pieces in a small way, cumulatively adding up to a race winning impact. In a recent article in The Times, he explains it like this:
“People often associate marginal gains with pure technology, but it is far more than that. It is about nutrition, ergonomics, psychology. It is about making sure the riders get a good night’s sleep by transporting their own bed and pillow to each hotel. It is about using the most effective massage gel. Each improvement may seem trivial, but the cumulative effect can be huge.”
It’s difficult not to be impressed by the results. However, what I notice here is that Sir Dave’s success lies in much more than his philosophy of management. It’s also in the way he has been able to install a culture that allows his methodology to thrive. Here are a few things I notice about the team:
- It has a clear vision and a focused goal. It’s in the title of this article.
- It’s disciplined and detail oriented. Although the vision is audacious, the way to achieving it is about each team member focusing on details and then working together to combine them into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Each person is clear on his or her role and how they contribute to the success of the team.
- It’s focused on continuous incremental improvement. “Marginal gains’” are all about a large number of small innovations that can come from anywhere. That can only happen when every person is empowered to user their expertise to the best of their ability.
- The vision binds people together. As Matt Parker, Sir Brailsford’s Director of Marginal Gains, commented in his article in The Times last year: “…set an objective, surround it with good people, pay attention to the details and work relentlessly to achieve it. We regularly ask athletes to be the best they can be; it is only right that they expect the same from us. The whole team — riders, scientists, nutritionists, medics, mechanics, drivers, managers, race directors, logistics, administration, stores, media, marketing and finance — we’re all dedicated to winning …”.
- Performance is the currency of success. With his two best riders both vying for wins, Sir Dave simply says: “My responsibility is to make sure they perform to the best of their ability, individually and together. We are not running a marriage guidance service here. We are trying to win big races.”
Are there any surprises here? Our research over the last 40 years would suggest that all of the above are essential ingredients in a high performance team and organisation.
Sir Dave and his team are dedicated to the use of science to drive performance and so it’s not surprising that the psychology of work agrees with what they are doing. What’s so impressive is the way that they have been able to apply it in practice.
I believe it’s important to have heroes and role models. From both a sporting and a management point of view, I think Sir Dave is a very reasonable choice.
Originally posted on LinkedIn on July 24, 2014.