All in the detail? It is the detail.

What’s your lasting memory of the London Olympics? Jess Ennis’ six-pack, Boris Johnsons’ dancing at the closing ceremony, Mo Farah’s wife’s inexplicable irritation with her husband moments after he made history with the 5000m gold – you missed that? Perhaps it was the dodgy chemistry between Lineker and Thorpe? There’s plenty to choose from.

For me, it was two words. Not ‘double gold’, not ‘Brownlee brothers’, not even ‘lasting legacy’. ‘Marginal gains’. It’s that phrase that’s had the greatest impact on me.

Marginal gains. Sweating the detail. Making the smallest of things count. The idea that tiny steps can lead to major success, as so convincingly demonstrated by the GB road and track cycling team under the genius of Dave Brailsford.

For those not familiar, Brailsford explains the theory like this

“If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by one per cent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

It’s a theory that’s actually thought to come from Wilhelm Steinitz, a 19th-century chess world champion. A master of strategy, Steinitz realised the value of gradually gaining advantages that are not decisive individually but collectively can make all the difference.

More recently, in the 1960’s, legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, took a similar approach. In his book, ‘Wooden on Leadership’, which I’d highly recommend, he devotes an entire chapter to thinking small and focusing on what to most would seem like ridiculous details. At the first team meeting of a season, no doubt to much bemusement, Wooden would show players how to put on socks correctly, ensuring all the creases were smoothed out. Ill-fitting socks had the potential to lead to blisters, blisters can distract, a distraction at a critical point in a game could cost the match. The right size shoes, trimmed fingernails, short hair, tucked in shirts – in Wooden’s eyes all relevant details. And the proof’s in the pudding, Wooden took his UCLA team to win 10 NCAA national championships in 12 years, all by recognising that no single big thing made the difference, but hundreds of small things done the right way, and done consistently.

So if it works in chess, cycling and basketball, why not business? And where do you start. Perhaps with the three core drivers for most business; the need to increase revenue, decrease costs and deliver exceptional customer satisfaction. Split out under those headings it doesn’t take long to identify the opportunities. Approach it from whatever angle and you’ll soon have a list of small things you could do or improve that collectively could have a major positive impact. Here’s an ad hoc list, after just ten minutes thought…

  • Start and finish meetings on time. Think of the collective time wasted with delays and over running
  • Got a question for a client? Make a point of calling them rather than defaulting to an email – you’ll get the answer there and then, perhaps learn something else, and build that relationship in the process.
  • Lose a pitch? It’s not all wasted effort it you ask for the reasons why. It’s a huge opportunity to learn and improve.
  • Write your ‘to do’ list for the next day before you call it a day – the opportunities are endless when you start thinking in terms of time (and stress) management.
  • Acknowledge every email and return calls promptly. These type of simple courtesies go a long way in differentiating the quality of your service.
  • Use the black and white printer if you don’t need colour. Better still ask yourself whether you need to print it at all – surprisingly high direct cost savings possible here.
  • Likewise, use the right paper for the job. No heavy weight, costly card for printing an email. There’s a double bonus here, immediate saving and a happy studio manager. A happy team equals a more productive team.
  • Buy a couple of big bottles of milk for tea and coffee consumption at the beginning of the week, rather than popping out for single pints every few hours. Cash saved, time saved…

Ok, so now we’re getting silly. Or are we? I think that’s the point. In just a few minutes I can come up with these. It’s not that many ideas and they’re not that great, but I’m pretty confident that even if we only addressed this random mix, we’d see some gains, gains that would ultimately translate to a better business.

I’m sure you could think of hundreds more and far better than these for your business. Surely it’s worth devoting some time to. If Dave can haul in 14 medals at 2012, and produce the first ever British Tour De France winner then it has to be worth considering? But right now I better dash, I’m late for a meeting.

About Alastair

Founder and Creative Director

Ali co-founded mark-making* in 1995 after graduating from Lancaster University in Marketing & Visual Arts. Ali works closely with our clients to help bring clarity to their story, and oversees the wider mm* team to ensure it’s expressed effectively, with authenticity and coherence. Ali regularly speaks on the concept of Magnetic Brands, an approach to creating and building brands that embraces the power of being more human, in pursuit of both profit and positive impact. Ali leads mark-making’s work in helping ambitious organisations of all shapes and sizes build extraordinary and enduring appeal.