The One Percent Solution

"A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness."
Jim Collins in Good to Great and the Social Sectors

Dave Brailsford is an enormously successful professional cycling and UK Olympic Cycling coach (I owe James Clear for exposing me to this story -  In 2010 Brailsford was selected to be the general manager of the new British-based professional cycling team Sky.  Brailsford started his tenure at the top of Sky by making an daring claim, that this team would win the Tour de France with a British rider within five years without doping.  This declaration was remarkable because Sky had no experience competing in the grueling and notoriously punishing grand tours, no British rider had ever won the Tour de France, and illegal doping seemed a given if a team planned to win on the biggest stage .  Despite the odds being stacked against them, Sky Cycling went on to win the Tour de France three times in the next five years (2012, 2013, and 2015) with two different British riders.

How did Brailsford manage such a remarkable accomplishment? 

Brailsford built a winning team around the idea that you could gain optimal performance by focusing on the “little things”.  Brailsford coined the phrase “aggregation of marginal gains” to describe this approach to winning.  He said, “You can achieve optimalperformance by the aggregation of marginal gains.  It means finding the one percent improvement in everything you do.”  These little improvements of one percent mean nothing all by themselves, but when added together over time they can make a massive difference.  The chart below shows the idea (chart from -


When he said “everything you do” he meant it.  For example, the first thing Team Sky does is teach their riders how to wash their hands.  It sounds silly, but Brailsford and his team started talking to surgeons about the best way to keep their riders healthy and doctors kept arguing that good hand hygiene was key to good health.  A rider that does not get sick is a rider that is able to train.  And Brailsford believed that additional training days would “aggregate over time”.

So, what does this mean for us in education?  The idea I want you to connect to is that if we make small improvements in all areas of the system it can have massive "aggregated gains".  Brailsford is fond of saying that focusing on the small stuff that others often overlook sets his team apart. 

So, if we adopted Brailsford's approach what should we improve by one percent?  Take a minute and think about everything you could improve in your office, school, or classroom by one percent.  Make a list on a piece of scratch paper.  I asked a group of school district leaders to do this recently and in only a few minutes we created a list that spanned three pieces of chart paper.  Here is a partial list:

  • Announcements
  • Lining up
  • Assemblies
  • Relationships
  • Organization of office
  • Asking the right question
  • Unemployment training
  • Washing hands
  • Better toilet paper
  • Transitions in classroom
  • Collaboration
  • Policy communication
  • Parent communication
  • Providing feedback
  • Use of data
  • Tardiness
  • Data accessibility
  • Meeting roles
  • Including more stakeholders
  • Discipline
  • Repetitive work (duplication)
  • Hiring
  • Budgeting
  • Calendars
  • Use of email
  • Hiring
  • Support of assistants
  • Leadership

Some of these suggestions are small (e.g. announcements and lining up), while others are huge (e.g. hiring).  However, there it is reasonable to believe that improving even small processes could have a huge benefit.  Consider for a moment the potential gains from improving how students line up.  A couple of years ago as part of some work I was doing in a district we did time study in a number of classrooms. The observations showed that nearly 30% of the classroom time was spent in "transitions.  Added up over a year that could be 300-400 hours.     Imagined that we improved the process of lining up and saved 1% of the time currently spent in transitions.  Over a year that time save would add up to 3-4 more hours of teaching and learning.  

What do you think you could improve just a little?  Try it out.  Send me a note and tell me how it goes!