The Principle of Marginal Gains

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 08-29-13

Today, I ask just one simple question:

If we understand that excellence in sport is the product of commutative marginal gains, then why do we think business performance all comes from big solutions to big problems?

Marginal gains, in the process, added together one day after the next, is what often leads to winning…in any endeavor.


  • Great thought. I’m not sure that your initial thought on the value of small gains in sports is widely accepted. Usually the first thing to happen in sports when a team doesn’t meet expectations is to fire the most visible scapegoats and replace them with people who have been associated with the most recent winning organization. (Like poaching coaches from Nick Saban’s staff in college football trying to replicate Alabama’s success, as an example.) The truly great coaches in both sports and business realize that the small things are the difference makers, the rest are chasing fairy dust and halo effects from the success of the greats.

    Joe Wilson August 29, 2013 at 4:09 pm
  • Yes, replacing the manager and expecting magical change happens in sports, and is often a management or ownership decision.

    But knowing the value of making marginal gains, both technically and tactically, is well understood and accepted when it comes to coaching. Golf and baseball players make micro tweaks to their swings. Soccer players practice the same basic skills over and over and over. A favorite quote of mine is “amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong.”

    Jamie Flinchbaugh August 29, 2013 at 4:16 pm