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The theory of marginal gains and how solicitor firms can learn from sporting success

20/04/2016 by David Gibbens, Director, Poole Waterfield

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In sport, business and life in general, there is a tendency to think that fundamental and radical changes are what it takes to make a real difference.

As the amazing success of former team GB cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford shows, this is not necessarily the case.

Let's take a look at the facts

Sir Dave’s approach is a deceptively simple and understated one. It begins with viewing problems and mistakes as a chance to improve, the philosophy being that raising performance levels  in lots of areas by 1 or 2% add up to a significant difference.

It means challenging assumptions about how things are done, assessing how good you are at doing them and establishing whether gains can be made. In other words taking nothing for granted, paying attention to every detail and being honest about performance.

When done properly this creates a culture where improvement is relentlessly and systematically pursued.

A sporting theme

Continuing with the sporting theme, when Bobby Simpson was appointed head coach to the Australian cricket team in the 1980’s, he was taking on a team that was badly in the doldrums. Over the next ten years, they became the strongest side in world cricket.

His tenure was marked by traditional values, common sense and paying attention to details as minor as the weight of the bats! Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but it worked (some might say too well and for far too long!).  So this is no recent phenomenon.

Working with solicitor firms

It may seem counter-intuitive that little changes can amount to a big difference but it is something that I have seen first-hand when working with solicitor firms.

Those who have adopted a long-term strategy of “doing the little things right” have tended to reap the rewards – typically seeking modest but ongoing improvements across all areas, and often beginning the process in known problem areas of the firm.

It can seem mundane but this approach can result in impressive long-term results.

Good people

None of this is meant to downplay the huge role that ability plays in any success – teams and businesses don’t achieve much, if anything, without good people.

Would the aerodynamic efficiency of the bicycle have made much difference without a Chris Hoy, or the weight of a bat without a Steve Waugh? No, quality performers are a must, whether it is a sportsman or a fee earner – the key is making them and the team perform just that little bit better, and then just a little bit more…

It goes without saying that marginal gains can only ever be just a part of managing a professional services business. Any theory lifted from sport has to be viewed in context – sport is a different world with relatively narrow and clearly defined objectives, and where success can turn on tiny differences.

In a different environment would marginal gains lead to unhealthy levels of micro-management or too insular a perspective, and would it be any help with rapidly changing circumstances?

Whatever its limitations might be there is much to learn from the theory of marginal gains and it is very hard to argue against the merits of its core message of establishing a culture that is all about improvement and which doesn’t tolerate complacency.

If the above is of interest to you why not get in touch and see if we can help your firm fulfil its potential? You can call me on 01384 455505 or email


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Category: David Gibbens Blog Author: David Gibbens, Director, Poole Waterfield

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