The Power of Incremental Improvement

I love Twitter and the volume of resources and ideas that can be found on this social networking platform. On the other hand, the number of pundits on Twitter advocating for sweeping change can seem rather daunting. For me, sometimes this leads to a sense of inadequacy, a feeling that I’m not modifying my work enough in relation to everything I see on Twitter.

Two years ago during our superintendent’s annual address to staff at the beginning of school, a strong message was delivered that our district needed to resist some of the external pressures that we face on a daily basis. This was mostly in response to the state and federal mandates that, to be honest, provide questionable value for our district. His message was also meant to affirm the good work that’s already being done in our district and a realization that we can and should improve, but at a thoughtful and deliberate pace that maintains our sanity.

Later that morning, I decided to pick up on that topic when I had my own staff meeting with the technology department. To put things in context, I decided to share one of my all time favorite articles titled This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened. This article features a story about Great Britain’s cycling team and the efforts of their coach, Dave Brailsford, to aggregate a series of small incremental improvements. The team looked at the obvious things such as equipment, nutrition, and training schedule. They also looked at the less obvious such as the pillows riders were using or their approach to hygiene in the prevention of illness. Their coach even eliminated the accumulation of dust in the mechanics area of the team truck to help optimize the effectiveness of their maintenance procedures. In short, they looked everywhere and, as a result, the British cycling team went on a historic run, with riders winning the Tour de France three times in a span four years and capturing 70% of the cycling gold metals in the 2012 Olympics.

This approach by Dave Brailsford describes what is known as the “aggregation of marginal gains”. The basic idea behind this concept is that a single, small incremental improvement (of the 1% variety) will have very little effect on one’s performance or growth. However, the aggregation of a whole bunch of incremental improvements can lead to an almost exponential improvement. Conversely, the aggregation of a series of bad habits can lead to exponential decline which is clearly something to avoid. The diagram below illustrates this concept graphically.

Clear, James. Digital image. This Coach Improved Every Tiny Thing by 1 Percent and Here’s What Happened.
N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Apr. 2017. <http://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains>.

 As I mentioned earlier, I shared this article with my staff as a follow up to the superintendent’s address. The purpose in doing so was twofold, to acknowledge the good work that’s already being done in our department and to inspire them to improve their craft without making it seem like a daunting task. I think sometimes the education sector gets a bad rap, often being characterized as being resistant to change and not keeping up with society as a whole. I started my career in the private sector and have been in education now for 24 years, both as a teacher and an administrator. Being a teacher is intense and demanding – calls for sweeping change often don’t take this into consideration. This article really struck a cord with my staff. They appreciated my effort to acknowledge their hard work while also providing a realistic way to improve their craft at the same time.