Compound your gains: try the 1% rule to become better

12 June, 2023

Stacking up a series of micro-improvements can help you make massive strides.

“The margin between good and great is narrower than it seems. What begins as a slight edge over the competition compounds with each additional contest”, James Clear.

I was recently guiding a founder who is rapidly scaling up his venture. He has big aspirations (like many other founders, who want to disrupt). He set an aggressive goal for the team to gain dramatic market share this year. However, the team was feeling very overwhelmed with the enormity of the target.

To break the challenge into more “bite-size” chunks, we discussed the how the 1% rule could help the team.

Have you heard of the 1% rule? This concept gained a foothold in the public imagination thanks to Dave Brailsford, the former director of British Cycling. After Brailsford took the reins, the British cycling team (which had performed mediocrely for the last century!) went on to win a staggering 59 world championships over the next decade. In 2008 and 2012, the team dominated the Olympics, winning eight gold medals at each, and in 2012, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France.

Brailsford attributed the team’s superlative performance to the 1% rule. As he explained:

 The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.

Led by Brailsford, the team implemented “the aggregation of marginal gains” in every area directly and indirectly related to cycling:

 By experimenting in a wind tunnel, we searched for small improvements to aerodynamics. By analyzing the mechanic’s area in the team truck, we discovered that dust was accumulating on the floor, undermining bike maintenance. So we painted the floor white, in order to spot any impurities. We hired a surgeon to teach our athletes about proper hand-washing so as to avoid illnesses during competition. We were precise about food preparation. We brought our own mattresses and pillows so our athletes could sleep in the same posture every night.

 Taken together, these micro-gains collectively added up to a dramatic improvement in performance.

Brailsford’s approach is featured in Atomic Habits, a best-selling book by James Clear that focuses on tiny tweaks to create remarkable change. Indeed, the 1% rule offers an excellent blueprint for improvement, both at work and in our personal lives. While it can be tough to make massive changes in habit or performance in a short period of time, it is relatively easier to seek out tiny margins of improvement on an ongoing basis. So, this week, my message focuses on the 1% rule — what it is, and how it can be useful for you as a leader.

To put it simply, the 1% rule is a philosophy of progress centred around the compounding gains offered by small, regular improvements. It doesn’t promise quick fixes or overnight success. Rather, it offers an approachable and realistic route to achieving big goals, with persistence and consistency being the key ingredients. Over time, the micro-successes you accomplish will add up to a substantial overall gain.

The 1% mindset can be applied in two ways, either separately or together:

1. Do 1% better across several areas (which is what Brailsford and his team did)

2. Do 1% every day/week/fortnight (which is what many people do when building good habits or best practices)

As Desmond Tutu once quipped, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” In other words, a task that appears daunting or even impossible can be gradually achieved by tackling just a little bit at a time.

In his piece for Inc., Jeff Haden offers a helpful illustration of the 1% approach:

Increase sales by 20 percent? For some companies, that’s a goal that might take months or years to accomplish. But finding a way to improve the CRM data entry accuracy might take only minutes. Finding a way to improve RFP turnaround times might take only minutes. Finding a way to improve the speed and quality of responses to certain types of customer inquiries might take only minutes. Yet the gains can last forever.

Leading with the 1% rule

Leaders can leverage the power of incremental gains in a variety of ways. Here are 4 areas where you could potentially utilize the rule of 1% in your leadership journey:

1. To achieve a lofty goal.

One scenario where the 1% rule could be relevant is when you and your team are working towards a big, ambitious goal. Shooting for the stars is a daunting proposition, which can lead to action paralysis.

So, to get unstuck, why not think smaller? Are there tiny changes that could accelerate your advancement? Are there minor improvements, hiding just out of sight, which could create a major impact? Achieving a series of small wins can yield a sizeable aggregate gain, giving your team the jumpstart, they need to get going. In this way, micro-progress can enable major breakthroughs.

2. To foster a culture of improvement.

Teams and organizations that embed improvement into their DNA stay ahead of the curve. Incrementally and continually enhancing everything we do helps us create an improvement-oriented culture. Leaders can encourage their teams to apply the 1% rule across every area they can think of: managing meetings, executing projects, collaboration, decision-making, and so on. Begin by breaking down each large task into its smallest components, then make tiny, meaningful changes to every part.

Leadership coach Suzi McAlpine offers a great perspective on micro (versus macro) improvements:

When you’ve identified red tape or bureaucracy, identified stones in peoples shoes, or just see the opportunity to improve a process or system, it can be tempting (and overwhelming) for it to be a big huge project. Sometimes that’s necessary, but sometimes it’s costly and time-consuming. Maybe the 1% rule can make it a little more manageable, or at least allow you to gain momentum and use low-hanging fruit to try things out or move forward more sustainably.

3. To address underperformance.

Do you have a team member who has been underperforming? Simply instructing them to start performing as required may not yield the desired results. Even if the person is ready to improve and capable of much more, they might feel overwhelmed or unsure about how to proceed.

In such a case, it can be useful to target small changes on a daily/weekly basis. Sit down with your team member to identify tiny, consistent improvements across key responsibilities, and follow up with regular check-ins. The important thing here is to create momentum, so that the incremental gains can accrue at a steady pace.

4. To infuse your team with positivity.

Applying the 1% rule as a group creates a virtuous cycle of motivation and improvement. Noting that incremental gains quickly become contagious, Brailfsord said:

 There’s something inherently rewarding about identifying marginal gains. People want to identify opportunities and share them with the group. Our team became a very positive place to be.

Each little positive change offers a sense of satisfaction, which in turn provides the stimulus for further improvement. Hence, once you kickstart incremental gains, you get a built-in source of fuel for ongoing success. In an environment where small contributions are valued, team members become invested in continuing to accrue such gains.

Getting started

As you and your team embark on your 1% journey, consider these helpful starter questions offered by McAlpine:

  • If we made a 1% improvement in this each day or week, what would that look like? Where would this take us?
  • What would be the smallest, do-able step for you to take to bring about improvement in X?
  • If we take the bike analogy, what are the components of the bike in this situation? Which are the most important components?
  • Where can we apply the 1% rule in overlooked and unexpected areas when it comes to X?
  • If we made that 1% improvement, when would it be realistic to review? How would we measure that? When would we be ready for the next 1% improvement?

To create maximum impact, remember to not just focus on core functions but also peripheral functions. This was one of the most crucial learnings shared by Brailsford, who sought tiny gains in every dimension — even those that appeared only tangentially related to cycling.

The rule of 1% encourages us to focus on process and progress, not perfection. It tells us to think small in order to accomplish big goals. By making regular micro-improvements over a period of time, we can bring about dramatic change.


Join the 8AM conversation