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How a cycling team experimented its way to world dominance


On July 29th, 2018, Geraint Howell Thomas, from Team SKY, was officially declared victorious of the Tour de France. His triumph contributed to his teams’ jaw-dropping results: six wins in only eight years since its inception. How did they do it?

In the beginning of the 2000’, British Cycling was in absolute dire straits. No British cyclist had ever won a Tour de France in its 100 plus years of history. The tea-sipping nation really had to get their act together, and the cycling coach David Brailsford (now Sir David Brailsford), knew it.

The broadcasting company, Sky, put their trust on Brailsford and decided to sponsor a team to turn this situation around on one condition: the team was to make a British rider to win a maillot jaune within first five years. They accomplished it in two.

What is perhaps most impressive - and most relevant for our blog - is the winning strategy Brailsford had chosen. Most teams would have relied on the power of the checkbook to attract the sport’s biggest stars, focusing on game changing “disruptive” improvements. Brailsford decided solely to focus on “incremental” innovation instead.

He realized that simply gathering a team of riders and telling them that their country expected them to win would put counterproductive pressure on them. Furthermore, he could not afford to waste time by betting on one big idea that could potentially fail. So he started breaking the problem down into manageable chunks. He focused on small problems which required simple solutions that would add up after time. Not all necessarily contributed much, but making small scale experiments allowed him to see the impact and achieve “marginal gains”.

On one occasion, he observed that gravel in the team’s van caused small damage to the team’s bikes. He decided to get the floor painted white so that they could notice when the surface was too dirty for the equipment. He also realized that team members getting sick meant that they would miss days of training and take a while to be back to their peak performance. He brought in a surgeon to explain to the team how to properly wash their hands to get rid of potentially infectious bacteria.

“I might not be able to see how I’m going to get to top of that massive mountain over there. But I tell you what: I can improve a small amount in my nutrition, in my diet, I can move my weight program forward, I can get another five minutes sleep a night, I can do all the recovery protocols as necessary” he noted in an episode of the Freakonomics podcast.

How often do we see such an approach in the corporate world? Rarely. Most companies rely on strategic plans, bold predictions and estimates made by McKinseys, BCG’s and the like. Rarely do such estimates become a reality, but for some reason, companies still take them as gospel. They then start blindly implementing the plans, only to realize a few years later that they have taken the wrong turn.

The agile approach to innovation, on the other hand, allows for such focus on small tweaks and improvements. Lean methodology can be applied to not only the ambitious disruptive projects, but also on incremental ones. The process begins by taking an idea and breaking it down to assumptions and risks. Small experiments can then be designed to prove these assumptions and detect successful solutions. Not all ideas turn out the be successful, but the point is to realize quickly and put good ideas to work.

Other teams should quickly catch up to Team SKY. The Wikipedia warns that 2019 is the “End of the Sky Era” (see image above). Marginal gains, however, is a philosophy that is here to stay. Let’s hope that it changes cycling and the world of business forever.


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