It is the second time in two years that a Briton has won the Tour de France. But it’s no accident of fate that put Bradley Wiggins, then Chris Froome on the winner’s podium. A whole range of factors feed into a winning performance, but one of the keys to the success of the UK’s cycling team is the use of what coach David Brailsford calls “aggregated marginal gains”.


This approach focuses on how small improvements to a range of areas (a cyclist’s diet, their equipment, and their sleep patterns) add up to a bigger performance improvement. The beauty of this approach is that it takes a holistic view of performance. It starts with the individual and works outwards to identify the tools and techniques that will support them as they improve.

It’s a theory that could successfully be applied to any industry, but it is especially apt for financial services, with its high concentration of knowledge workers or so-called ‘clevers’.

For the marginal gains theory to apply, managers need to look at every aspect of the working day to identify where small, interlinked adjustments might add up to improvement — and what is slowing people down. A new report, “Maximising the performance of your employees through the aggregation of marginal gains”, found that UK managers and non-managers alike are wasting up to one-tenth of their week on fruitless meetings, email overload, duplicated work and poor communication.

When asked, the majority claimed they could be 50 per cent more productive if they adopted the marginal gains approach at work.

So where could tweaks be made to improve performance? Here are eight areas where small adjustments could yield bigger rewards:

Clearer goals: Unclear goals and conflicting targets that pit one department against another will undermine overall business outcomes. Worse, performance reviews aren’t treated as ‘business critical’: at one financial services organisation, 48 per cent didn’t undertake regular appraisals, and among the 62 per cent that did, only 10 per cent felt it was carried out to an adequate standard.

There is also the option to replace annual appraisals with continuous reviews as happens at some high performing organisations. Board members must acknowledge the importance of performance reviews and of capable managers. This can be a challenge in industries such as financial services: highly valued people who operate on strong subject matter expertise or good networks are more likely to be allowed to opt out of effective people management.

Targeted training: Both managers (38 per cent) and non-managers (45 per cent) feel they’d perform better if they had more appropriate training. This is particularly relevant in retail FS operations, where there’s an increasing focus on all aspects of the customer journey. In the future, organisations will need to realign the relevant people if they are to keep pace with the fast changing environment and technology.

Look at how projects are managed – they can be a great way to provide people with hands-on training and acquire new skills and competencies. Offer multi-channel options, and make it easy for people to access the tools to learn independently. Give accreditation to training so that people see its value to their career progression.

Process: Managers find themselves monitoring too many ‘non-critical’ metrics, and too much bureaucracy and complexity can leave people confused as to accountabilities (potentially very serious in such a heavily regulated sector).

Lee Timmins
Lee Timmins

Start by simplifying internal processes and metrics – some may be meaningless in real performance terms. Ask individuals to identify five things (no more) that make their job a success. Think about how adjustments will affect teamwork as a whole, and prioritise demands to free up the highest performers to handle the most complex cases. It’s almost customising work design for each individual. This calls for capable managers, who understand each team member’s capabilities and align their personal objectives accordingly. Not everyone is the team’s Sir Chris Hoy, but those who aren’t ‘high potential’ should feel equally valued and motivated. Acknowledge people’s different responsibilities and their contribution.

Accessing information: making information available in a timely fashion is vital for the sector. Yet managers (37 per cent) and non-managers (42 per cent) complained that they couldn’t easily get to the information they needed. Many felt they were also churning out unnecessary reports. So how can you empower people (and processes) with information? There are now a number of technology tools available at low cost that can be tailored to fit a person’s needs and access level at work. Content management systems and cloud-based software and platforms make it easy to store and share information. There’s no excuse for information being locked away on individual PCs any more. Consider allowing people to bring their own devices (BYOD), as they feel necessary — the majority claim this would help them gather and sort the information they need. Of course, they need to adhere to security and HR policies (and companies need to be active in promoting these – don’t count on people to seek them out).

Collaboration: Because of their global nature, poor collaboration can have far-reaching consequences in financial services organisations. As a result, large institutions are moving towards centralised IT services. Used properly, these can create an entirely different and more global working dynamic. The right tools will enable people to work together, whether that means a project forum on LinkedIn, an enterprise social network, cloud technology, software as a service or BYOD. Let early adopters lead the way, setting up interest groups and using social networking to collaborate. These don’t have to be expensive or complicated. One bank switched from traditional fraud alerts via beepers to an internal Facebook group. It just made more sense.

Communication: A perennial problem, Atos Consulting research found that bad email habits had, ironically, hampered communication across companies. But pointless memos and poor messaging add to the ‘organisational fog’. These could be better targeted to readers rather than the blanket email from the board that may mean nothing on the shopfloor. Instead, take advantage of multi-channel communication tools – from blogging to video to IM – to tailor your messages to the audience. Again, it needn’t be super-elaborate. Do what works for you. There are lots of small acts that can improve communication: a company Wikipedia entry; or a CEO video blog.

Someone needs to keep an eye on the quality of output, but small tweaks can yield a wider shift in attitudes and move people from hoarding information to a more collaborative approach.

Environment: It’s no secret that poorly designed offices can sap motivation, but it’s not just time spent in the office that is a problem. Commuting time is seen by one in five as a major drain on their efficiency.

Yet, moving people, Yahoo! style, away from remote working is not always the answer. Sometimes more flexibility is required – an allowance for both individual and collaborative spaces is the way of the future, according to architecture firm Norman Foster Associates. One City-based organisation saved money and boosted morale by introducing flexible desks and more communal work spaces. But expect significant resistance to physical office changes: it’s worth testing on a receptive group to prove the concept in a small way.

Culture and practice: Micro-management and presenteeism are culturally embedded at many firms, with managers paying lip service to flexible working but preferring the ‘command and control’ style of old. Many managers are entrenched in ‘the way we do things around here’ and may not even be aware of what’s possible with todays technology, let alone what a new generation of working people expects from their job in terms of flexibility and trust.

This is essentially about the corporate culture. Ask yourself ‘what do I need to get from my employees and how do we achieve it?’ Work-life balance considerations and a long commute, for example, might encourage the uptake of more flexible working. Cultural shifts can come unstuck, though, unless changes in behaviour are linked directly to performance reviews and skills training.

A big force for change is the need to retain under-30s, whose average tenure in London is just 19 months in a company. Knowledge workers in such a dynamic sector can be notoriously hard to replace, and while their predominant motivation for leaving may be money, many also claim their career is not being managed by the organisation.

Consider flexible/mobile working on an individual basis: not everyone will want it, and only a small percentage of employees will suit remote working. You may have to force yourself to think differently and team managers will probably need training, if only to understand what’s possible. Use a range of tools – online chat, face-time — to give managers a sense of proximity without presence.

Use the tech – sentiment analysis, data modelling – to get a feel for what’s really going on, where and how people are communicating. Monitoring is an essential part of marginal gains — and it relies on managers who recognise the potential of individuals and can unlock it. You’ll also need persistence. Excellence, as Aristotle said, is not an act but a habit.

The writers are Lee Timmins, Senior Vice President at Atos Consulting, and Kristofer le Sage de Fontenay, Head of Financial Services at Atos Consulting

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