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Incrementalism: how to achieve small things that make all the difference

Something I’ve been referencing quite a lot recently in discussions about work and in meetings is the concept of incrementalism or making marginal gains.

What is it?

Incrementalism is the idea that aiming for something large (e.g saving enough money to retire) can be difficult to visualise and accomplish because of the sheer size of the challenge in front of you. Instead, you should make a plan to work towards what you’re trying to achieve by improving a little bit every day.

It’s something that many successful people do without realising – they tinker with an idea until it works.

Who uses it?

A recent example of this in practice that’s referenced quite a lot in the media is Sir Dave Brailsford – one time performance director for Team GB’s cycling team and currently general manager of Team Sky.

When Railsford came into the role, Great Britain had only won one Olympic gold medal in 76 years. In 2012, Team GB won eight gold medals. In 2016, every track cyclist who competed for Britain won a medal. So what did Sir Dave do to achieve this?

Dave’s changes ranged from making minor changes to a rider’s body position to increase how aerodynamic they are, to teaching athletes how to wash their hands properly and employing staff to deep clean hotels before Team GB stayed in them to reduce sickness.

Did any one of these changes enable them to win a truckload of gold medals? No, but together, they contributed to Team GB’s success.

But they’re Olympic athletes! I’m not that dedicated, how can I use it?

Yes, the Great British Olympic cycling team are like a squad of elite cyborg killing machines. They’re ruthless. They spend every hour of their lives training or eating or sleeping in order to get better at their sport.   

But they’re also training to be the best in the world. Are you?

Chances are you want to get in shape, or save enough money for your first house, or get a better job. Do you need to be as dedicated as Laura Trott to achieve this? Probably not, but if you make decisions in the same way – making positive changes one decision at a time – then you’ll achieve your goals a lot faster and more easily.

I’m in. Tell me more.

Okay, I’ll level with you. I don’t know the exact details of what Sir Dave Railsford did and I’m not a cycling expert, but here’s how the technique works for me.

The beauty of this approach is that it’s pretty simple:

  1. Start with a clearly defined objective.
  2. List all of the challenges that stand in the way of achieving your goal, no matter how small. There might be hundreds of these, but pick the ones you think are the most important.
  3. Tackle them in a logical order – you might want to also prioritise these by importance, or try and solve the easiest ones first in order to build up a bit of momentum, it’s up to you.
  4. Keep the things you try that work, throw out anything that doesn’t.
  5. Repeat.

This can be particularly effective if used as a way of motivating a team. In fact, in this podcast on the subject, Railsford says that the effectiveness of incrementalism for Team GB probably came from getting everyone working towards the same goal and using the same approach to improving the team.

So, got a goal that seems out of reach? Struggling to focus a team on how to get better at what they do? Give incrementalism a try, and remember: it can take years to become an overnight success.

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