I enjoyed a light-bulb moment a few weeks ago when talking with business coach and soon-to-be-brother-in-law @Brad Cooke. With our business growing very quickly I felt that I may be taking on an unsustainable workload and I wanted to make some changes, fast.
Brad patiently listened to my big ideas for change, one after the other, until I had exhausted most reasonable options. He pondered for a moment before asking a question which created an immediate shift in my thinking:
“What’s the smallest thing you can do to make a positive change?”
Simple question really. But it really hit home. It hit home because I, like many, tend to look for big solutions regardless of the size of the problem. When there is a need for change, it’s easy to become distracted by the desire to simply make a change rather than acutely addressing the problem and finding the best solution.
It also hit home because I see this type of thinking in people all the time when talking about money. It’s this thinking that drives people to make the big investment property purchase rather than make some small changes to their cashflow to increase their rate of savings. It’s so easy to overestimate the importance of a few big moments and underestimate the value of making better decisions every day.
Many people seek financial advice in the hope that we can ‘fix everything’. We can’t. Well, not immediately. There will be some quick wins, some of them extremely valuable, but our best work lies in helping people to continuously make the incremental improvements needed to achieve financial success.
Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in competitive cycling. In 2009, Dave Brailsford was given the job of Performance Director at Team Sky Racing. His goal: to guide the first ever British team to win a Tour de France.
From the outset he adopted an approach previously unseen in professional cycling, which he described as ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. This approach stemmed from the belief that if you broke down everything that could impact on a cycling performance, and then improved each aspect by 1%, you would get a significant increase when you put them all together.
And so he started, initially focusing on the obvious areas like fitness, nutrition and one-on-one coaching. Then he moved to the finer points like sleep quality, where he observed each rider’s sleeping posture and ensured all riders had the right pillows when on tour. He asked that all riders were taught to correctly wash their hands to minimise the chance of illness. He was truly relentless about finding the extra 1% in every area possible.
Competitors saw this approach as an unnecessary distraction for riders and initially paid little attention. But the 1% improvements started to show through. As more improvements were found, Team Sky were suddenly competitive. And then winning.
Dave Brailsford set a goal to win the Tour de France within five years. With the entire team committed to incremental improvement he achieved this in three years, and then again the following year. The UK cycling team, under Brailsford’s coaching, went on to win 8 gold medals at the 2012 Olympics in a supremely dominant display. For his efforts, he was knighted in 2013.
Clearly, incremental improvements work. They work because it’s far easier to find small positive changes than spending days brainstorming huge plans to resolve an issue. But incremental improvements also work because they are easier to action. Big changes naturally require big amounts of effort, and big amounts of effort can give rise to something very undesirable: inertia.
If there are areas in your life where you feel that you are not moving forward, perhaps take a step back and ask, ‘What’s the smallest thing I can do to create a positive change?’
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