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aggregation of marginal losses

Over the last 10 to 15 years a fair bit has been talked and written about a term coined by Sir Dave Brailsford, “the aggregation of marginal gains”. I’ve heard Brailsford talk a number of times on this subject. He openly admits there are many variations on this expression some of which certainly predate him. So, what is it? Essentially, it’s the concept that if you can look at everything you do around a certain goal and look to improve by say 1% (or less) you end up with lots of small changes that aggregate up to a big positive impact. I use this approach in lots of the work I do and find it can really help.

In this post, I want to talk about ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ less helpful brother. ‘The aggregation of marginal losses’.

The aggregation of marginal losses gets talked about less because I guess it can create quite a negative conversation. I’m all for focusing conversations in a positive context however for some people this means they miss out on understanding the stuff they do which can get in their way. In isolation, these things are unlikely to stop you from achieving. However, when you add them all up many people can find they are some distance from being able to realise their full potential.

An exercise that can be really insightful is to take a particular goal and write in two columns the marginal losses and gains that could influence what you are looking to achieve. One person I was working with wanted to empower their direct reports more but had been given feedback that they were micromanaging their work. Here are a few examples of things they came up with for the marginal losses:

  • Not preparing for 121 meetings properly and then feeling the need to ‘pretend’ they had read the preread material.

  • Asking too many closed questions in interactions.

  • Rushing the initial delegation of a task.

  • Not understanding how stretching a task was for their directs to take on.

In each case, the person developed a more positive action or ‘gain’ to address the above. The learning point for them was by asking the ‘loss’ question they found they needed to be more honest with themselves about their own behavior and actions. It really felt like a penny dropped for this individual. So, if you are looking to make progress on a particular goal and are struggling, how about analysing where all the little losses might be for you and then most importantly working out what you will practically do to address them?

As always, I’m interested in how you get on.


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