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Marginal Gains Theory

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

Management gurus and a lot of managers bought into the marginal gains theory. That is that a lot of very small changes , almost insignificant in themselves, when taken together made the difference between  just missing out on a meddle and getting gold. A lot of executives wondered  if the success achieved by team GB using marginal gains could be applied successfully in business.

It meant senior managers should pay a lot more attention to detail, it would mean breaking down processes to their smallest step, every task in every job needed to be examined to see if an efficiency could be squeezed out. Pains taking, time consuming , laborious but if it resulted in the much sort after improvement in performance where even modest gains could provide a competitive edge then it would be worth it.

Imagine then the impact of the revelation that the athletes were taking performance enhancing drugs. Confirmation of the suspicions of many insiders that marginal gains were an insufficient explanation for significantly improved performance. What of the implications for business leaders who invested in the marginal gains theory. What about all that energy and time spent examining the detail, making small changes and minor improvements ?

Well it explains the failure to see results or does it? What about those organisations that can point to improved performance following an intense period of applying the marginal gains approach? Perhaps when it comes to organisations what determines outcomes is whatever senior managers focus on. If senior managers focus on certain areas of performance then there will be measurable improvement in these areas.

If senior managers focus on reducing costs then costs will be reduced, if they focus on increasing income then income will increase, if the push is to generate more partnerships then partnerships will increase. Of course this only works if the focus is narrow and the number one priority. Soon though other priorities will crowd it out.

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