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Committing to One Percent

Dave Brailsford basked in the glow of the Olympics. The Great Britain cycling team just completed their participation at the 2012 Olympics in London, England, winning 70 percent of the medals in men’s cycling. Reporters probed with aggressive questioning, wanting to understand the silver bullet that led to this success. The irony: There was no silver bullet. In fact, it was the opposite of a silver bullet.

When the Great Britain cycling team, Team Sky, hired coach Dave Brailsford in 2010, the country had never won a Tour De France. In fact, the history of the sport in the country was filled with errors, mishaps, and minimal success. Historically, the team chased fads of success: new equipment, new uniforms, new techniques. But nothing changed the trajectory. Then, Dave Brailsford arrived.

Dave Brailsford fanatically talks about the aggregation of marginal gains. This concept means that by marginally improving each and every aspect of a process, the aggregation of those small gains will lead to large improvements. Brailsford’s goal was simple: one percent. He sought a one-percent improve- ment in every aspect of the cycling team.

Setting out to improve all aspects of a cycling team, the obvious places to start are in areas like nutrition, bike performance, and physical conditioning. After all, improving every meal by one percent promised a path to continued improvement. However, for Brailsford, those enhancements merely scratched the surface. He set out to improve every aspect by one percent. Not only sports massage, but the gels used for sports massage. Not only the bikes, but the grips on the bikes and, more specifically, the tackiness of the grips. He studied not only the physical conditioning, but also the sleep habits and, more specifically, the pillows used. He focused on every aspect: one-percent improvement. It’s that simple.


In 2012, a short two years after Brailsford joined the team, Great Britain won its first Tour De France. Shortly thereafter, the triumph at the Olympics in London occurred. The aggregation of the one-percent gains created superior outcomes.

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Coincidentally, there is recent proof of the power of One Percent in the 'Deflategate' saga involving the New England Patriots. In this case, the One Percent improvement in the football led to exponentially differentiated results. See here for the details. For the record, I don't condone exploiting the One Percent outside of the rules or law.

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You'll find this story and more like it in Big Data Revolution: What Farmers, Doctors, and Insurance Agents Teach Us About Discovering Big Data Patterns.

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