The 1% Rule: What It Is and Why It’s Useful for You as a Leader

You might have heard of the 1% improvement rule utilised by Head of British Cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford when he applied the theory of marginal gains to cycling with the UK team who went on to achieve gold medals. Brailsford said, “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.”

It’s a concept called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – a philosophy of progress and compounding small gains that encourages people to continually search for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

Even though there have been criticisms of the concept and claims that other things also contributed to the success of the British cycling team in this instance, I still think it’s a useful notion and tool for leaders to think about and experiment with.

I’ve included some coaching questions below to help you bring the 1% rule into your leadership practice, but first let’s look at a few areas in which this idea could apply…

  1. Managing non-performance.

When someone in your team isn’t where they want to be, or where you need them to be, on some aspect of their performance (and assuming you’re both on the same page about what success looks like, the fact that there is a problem and that they are at least open to change), it might be helpful to think about small gains to improve performance. Follow this coaching and exploration up with lots of positive feedback and encouragement when they do improve and keep up the momentum – focusing on the 1% gains happening rapidly (daily or weekly) to address the improvement you need at the pace that’s required.

  1. When you and your team have a big audacious goal that seems a bit out of reach.

There’s a quote about the fact that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If you feel like you’re striving for the impossible – and it’s all feeling like a bridge too far – think about some of the smaller steps or strides that could accelerate your progress. It’s like the domino effect; is there something that might smooth the way or enable you to move faster or further? Anything that would have an out-sized impact if it was improved even slightly?

  1. When you want continuous improvement but want to make it manageable and not overhaul everything.

When you’ve identified red tape or bureaucracy, identified stones in people’s 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?

  1. When you are teaching someone a new skill.

Learning new things can be tough – no matter what age we are. However, if people can see progress when they’re learning, it builds confidence and helps them focus on what they are doing well. Identifying, measuring and highlighting small gains in their progress can be one way to apply this principle to help people learn. Encourage them to notice the subtleties of their progress in this way and you’ll also encourage confidence.

  1. When you or your team feel overwhelmed with too many priorities.

I’m a big fan of focus – and keeping priorities to only the top few, with everything else going on a ‘to don’t’ list (even if it’s just for right now). Identify your top three strategic priorities and keep the rest in your ‘good ideas parking lot’. Then, at each weekly team meeting, apply the 1% rule to each of the three priorities and see how much progress you can make.

If you’re wanting to bring the 1% rule to life in any of these scenarios, or other aspects of your coaching practice, these coaching conversation starters could help…

  • “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?” Get collectively clear on what that looks like in measurable terms.
  • “If we take the bike analogy, what are the components of the bike in this situation? Which are the most important components?” This is good for identifying all the places where you can apply the 1% rule and deciding what to prioritise first.
  • “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?”

Little micro steps, done often and regularly can lead to big gains. Where else might this be useful in your leadership this week? And I’d love to hear any additional questions you use with your teams to get them thinking in this way also.

Related: A Healthy Dose of (Eu)Stress in the Workplace Never Hurt Anyone – Here’s Why