The aggregation of marginal gains – what can we learn from the sport of cycling?

Posted on : 30-09-2013 | By : richard.gale | In : General News

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Sir David Brailsford is the major driver behind a revolution in the fortunes of British Cycling. The UK is now one of the most successful cycling nations with two successive Tour de France winners from Team Sky, a team that was put together barely 4 years ago. Fifteen years ago British cycling was languishing in the lower divisions, now it is riding high in the world rankings.

One of the most interesting techniques Brailsford has applied to cycle coaching is the “aggregation of marginal gains” the sum of analysing & making many small changes to an environment or training plan.  Many examples have been quoted such as heating bib shorts before use to keep the muscles warm, wiping tyres down with alcohol before the start of races to clean grit off and employing a chef to provide optimised meals for the riders.

One specific example of this is the Team Sky Bus. Every competitor has a bus but, before Brailsford and his team, none had thought about in the same way. Team Sky started from scratch and built it out to provide the perfect environment to support the riders on the tours. Every part of the rider’s routine was analysed and an environment was then designed to meet their needs perfectly. Riders need lots of clean, dry kit, the need lots of nutritious interesting food, they need somewhere private to discuss the days’ events and plan for the next one. So the bus included washing machines (muffled of course), meeting rooms, kitchen & sleeping areas customised for the riders.

The attention to detail (and an almost unlimited budget) showed through when two brand new Volvo coaches were torn apart and then 9000 man hours of kitting out took place. This process involved the coaches, riders and other staff with continuous feedback which refined the result into an additional pair of team members. Initially the rival teams dismissed the buses nicknamed “Death Stars” as just another bus (abet – expensive they ended up costing around £750k each)but as Sky’s daily results on the tours jumped up the leader boards they came to learn and respect the thought processes involved.

So what lessons can we learn on the Sky approach? Well the techniques they are using have been borrowed from business ideas but it is the consistent application of them which is making them work so well.

GB cycling & the Sky team have a similar philosophy based on the following core principles:

Setting ambitious goals

From a standing start in 2010 Brailsford said Team Sky would win the Tour de France within five years. This was seen as ludicrous by the cycling establishment. He disrupted conventional thinking by applying scientific methods to the sport and, with Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012, it actually took them three years.

We think this ‘shooting for the stars’ ambition can work for business just as well. Aiming for what could be done not what is being done changes the way people think within companies and, given the right environment, support, drive and that ambition does create winning organisations.

Focus on the end result

What is important? All around there is noise, interference and distractions so keeping the ‘blinkers’ on to aim for the end-game is critical. Saying that, blindly ignoring feedback or responses around you can be fatal too so ensuring you are aiming for the right end result is also critical.

Teamwork & Ensuring the whole team has one vision

All organisations have teams. Team GB & Sky have ensured the right mix of individuals form a team with a common, shared goal. This is something which is part directed, part in built and always reinforced. Everyone understands the obligations and rewards of having the single winning vision.

Analyse everything

Data is everything and unlocking its hidden value is another key to the team’s success. Everyone in the team understands the value of capturing as much information as possible and that data is analysed and replayed in as near time as possible. The Sky team sometimes forgo the glory of the ‘hands free’ roll over the finishing line to punch in the completion message on their bike computers.

Control & Discipline

There is a poster on the entrance to the team bus with the Team rules re-emphasises the importance of the vision and goals of the team. It does not spell out the penalties for infringement but a number of people have left the team after breaching rules either during or before their stint with Sky.

Grow the person

This is the aim of most businesses but both GB and Sky aim to get inside their team members’ heads to understand their motivations, desires and ambitions. This energy is then focussed in such a way to build and improve the team whilst maximising the personal objectives of the person.

Plan and plan flexibility

Team GB & Sky management and riders spend a large amount of their time planning for every eventuality including differing weather conditions, team strengths, rivals changing strategies and  any other factors that can influence the race. They then produce the strategic plan of the race, the day, the hour or the hill. The important piece is that any changing circumstances are fed into the plan to modify or indeed create a new plan as it is required. It is strong enough to hold up and work but flexible enough change and still be a success.


All these attributes can be applied to most business areas and it is the ability to plan and refine every detail which has provided British cycling and Sky with their continued success. Small continuous improvements bring marginal gains to both Sport and also Business teams.

What is also critical is that the strategy or ‘big picture’ is going in the right direction. There is no point bringing the right pillow if the bus is parked in the wrong town.



Education – How can technology help?

Posted on : 28-03-2012 | By : richard.gale | In : General News

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The development of the Raspberry Pi, (a £30 computer designed to give the next generation of children programming skills) started a few of us at Broadgate thinking about technology and education – Are there ways that schools and other organisations could utilise some of the current technology trends?



ICT in the classroom has changed radically over the last 30 years. In the 1980s there existed  ‘the school computer’ where a select group of students could spend lunch-times and evenings writing programmes in incomprehensible languages resulting in simple calculators or battleship type games. Now computers are embedded in homes, offices and schools – the UK GCSE ICT course now includes a full project management lifecycle study from initial requirements gathering to system implementation. Outside the classroom computers are used for all the usual business processes including pupil records, finance, scheduling and communications.

In the UK the Professor Steve Furber of Royal Society  criticised the skills of ICT teachers (for example only 35% have a specific qualification in the subject contrasting with 74% of maths teachers) and teaching and proposed the standalone subject be scrapped. He said that IT was so important it should be part of the core curriculum integrated into schools to improve digital literacy alongside reading, writing and arithmetic.


Our Broad Thoughts

Integrating technology into the core of the curriculum is key and we think the opportunities for technology to improve, accelerate and enhance the educational experience for both pupils and teachers are huge.

A few of our ideas are below and we’d welcome your thoughts on these and other areas.


1. Social Media – collaborative approach

This is an area were the pupils excel and, as a rule, are ahead of the teachers. These technical natives have grown up with technology and the use of social networks is a natural extension of them. They are used for updating friends, promoting themselves, discussing & arguing and sharing information. Are there ways schools can utilise this technology and more importantly energy & enthusiasm?

The key element of Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc etc. is socialising and sharing ideas. Discussions started in the classroom can be extended to home/remote working. These often happen informally amongst pupils but could have added value if teachers could interact and assist. Schools could create ecosystems for collaborative working. Initially it may be difficult to attract pupils to the school created areas so a more successful approach may be for the pupils to create and teachers to join. Obviously there are risks to this but the idea that there be a shared area for thoughts and ideas without negativity in a safe space.


2. BYOD/Mobility – help or hindrance?

Many pupils now carry smartphones some are starting to carry iPads too. These can be viewed negatively from a school perspective as they can, at worst, be a distraction in class and potentially a cheating and bullying device.

So, accepting they are not going away, how can the positive aspects of smartphones be utilised?

Simple techniques such as using calendar facilities to upload the class timetables, reminders for homework, coursework etc. Alerts for taking in gym kit could be pushed out to pupils (and parents) devices. Obviously this does not completely remove ‘The dog ate my blackberry’ issue for teachers but it should help!

Coursework, homework and useful reference material & links can be also pushed up to phones to consolidate knowledge and aide pupils.

Even more useful would be to think how people use their phones and tablets, as well as communicating they are great research tools and could be used within the classroom situation helping finding different viewpoints on historical events for instance (and so helping improve the critical thinking of children as there are so many different and potentially inaccurate ‘facts’ out there –  “Always check your sources!” as my history teacher used to say).

Tablets and iPads in particular are very exciting tools for learning. They move away from the conformity of keyboards and mice and can make learning truly interactive. They are starting to be adopted in schools but we think there is a great potential to radically change the classroom and learning experience.

Obviously not all pupils can afford smartphones so to avoid technology related poverty trap, less well-off pupils should be provided with the same phones/tablets. Cash rich technology organisations should be approached to assist and a need mechanism could be introduced such as that for school dinners. Also parents’ wishes need to be taken into account as the age that a child is allowed to use a phone can vary widely.


3. Data Intelligence – Capturing Trends

As with any organisation there are large amounts of data contained in multiple stores. Also as with any other organisation that data is often not connected with other relevant sources so the information value of that data is lost.

One of our colleagues moved from financial services to education and was surprised by the lack of management information available to the teaching team. The data is there but it was not being translated into meaningful information.

There must be potential to link an individual teachers/class/subject results to identify trends. E.g. if the interim test results for the year 8 history class is going down, is it because the course work has been modified, there is a new teacher or the pupils socio-economic make up has changed? A good business intelligence application can trawl the data to identify the causes and so the appropriate remedial actions taken.

Similarly if maths A level results suddenly improve, what are the reasons for this and how can then they be applied elsewhere (internally or externally see Communications below)

If an individual pupils attainment levels started dropping off then additional attention could be provided to that student to help them get back on track and also identify and help hopefully resolve the underlying cause of the issue.

Other areas which may be more radical may involve gathering the information and identifying the better performing areas within or across schools including measurements such as a ‘cost per GCSE’ or ‘Entry/Exit attainment improvement’ of pupils.


4. Communications – sharing

Schools can sometimes be inward looking. Often teachers stay in one school for a considerable time. This is great for continuity and progression but may result in lost opportunities for innovation and changes that are happening in the extended educational community. Some schools encourage visits to other schools, conferences and courses can help here and there is big opportunity to take this further.

Businesses utilise management consultants to help improve organisations for efficiency or growth with the view to build revenue and profits.

Could information sharing, more inter-school communications, best practice and teaching artefact sharing help schools and teaching? Information is now available locally, nationally and internationally so can be shared and used amongst educational establishments.


5. Cloud Computing – Who needs infrastructure?

Most schools have a room/office with the computers/servers. As IT requirements grew in terms of finance, pupils’ records, assessments, operational and staff information the amount and complexity of equipment expanded often requiring dedicated resources to support and change. As we have been saying to our clients, with the advent of Cloud and Software as a Service the need for this is reducing to the point where the default should be for someone else to host, manage and support a schools technology infrastructure.

Obviously, as with any sensitive information, the question of student data privacy and security needs to be addressed. This should already be the case and the existing policies should be proved by any potential vendor and tested regularly by the educational authority.


6. Security – Paramount

The most important part of the use of technology is pupil safety and confidentiality. This is obvious and needs to be kept in the forefront of any discussion in regard to the introduction of a system whether it is IT or other mechanism.


Final thoughts

The opportunities for technology to help improve schools is both immense and exciting, this is not an area we have worked in but are really interested in stimulating a debate and seeing if we can assist in any way. Every time we help people outside our core business areas of finance IT we find not only do we enjoy it but we too learn a great deal from different working structures and cultures.

“If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow” John Dewey – innovation & technology can help us help the next generation.



Earning and sustaining trust between clients and partners

Posted on : 12-09-2011 | By : john.vincent | In : General News

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Recently a CTO colleague ran a very interesting poll of colleagues around the theme of technology change with the question, “What should CXOs most look for in a partner?”read more ).  Of the 5 categories, ranked equal first alongside Implementation and Execution was Demonstration of Trust and Integrity, with 43%.  It is this theme that I’d like to explore.

To be truly considered a trusted advisor to clients and colleagues the status has be both earned and sustained.   At the optimal level, it is a symbiotic relationship between CXO and partner i.e. “A relationship of mutual benefit or dependence”.  So many times we see this relationship distorted or the balance skewed, such as contracts where the partner either “buys the deal” or has commercials tied down to a level that they cannot deliver to.  Familiar ?  Or global partner agreements driven from a success in one business domain which is then “shoe-horned” into a non fit for purpose world.  Seen that ?

The Trust equation talks about it being the sum of Credibility, Reliability and Intimacy divided ( or diluted ) by Self Orientation.  It is a good general measure.  Without going into the mechanics and metrics, let’s look at the constituent parts.

Credibility: this area is most commonly achieved in a relatively moderate amount of time.  The quantitative aspects, or believability, can be established through demonstrating technical capability and advice, or checked through references etc…  The softer side, such as honesty, is more related to comfort and rapport.  In the survey it is also strongly related to Integrity.   In the CXO – Partner relationship this can be eroded through traits such as over exaggeration, anticipating needs rather than listening to the problems and promising, or over stating, capability which doesn’t exist.  I saw a colleague a few months ago who had moved from the client to the supply side – she was very unhappy at the practice of claiming non-existent service capability and subsequently resigned.

Reliability: it is taken as given that partners should be reliable, demonstrate consistent behaviours and be dependable.  Right ?  However, the CXO vocabulary is littered with anecdotes of partnership agreements gone bad.  We hear a lot of talk of the “A Team” at the outset being swapped for the “C Team” during execution.  Or surprise that the bread-and-butter services of some of the big partner firms turn out to be far from expectations or developed “on the job”.  And remember it’s not uni-directional.  Reliability also applies to the client side in the relationship.  For and effective and efficient model there are obligations on both sides.  Reliability applies all round in areas such as communications, timeliness, clarity and consistency.

Intimacy:  managing change in today’s climate has never been more difficult.  CXO’s should seek trusted partners that they can engage with on a different level to drive often challenging agendas.  In a true partnership, both sides should be open to explore solutions without keeping important information in the “back pocket”.  This includes being clear in the blockers and issues on both sides, whether that is internal client constraints, desires, commercial goals etc… as well as limitations or short falls in on the delivery partner side.  Difficult, yes ?  But if the personal things relating to the engagement get shared it can bring an emotional closeness to benefit all.  Of course, this takes more time in terms of the trust equation.

Self Orientation: this is the main source of dilution in demonstrating trust.  Partners who have a tendency to jump straight to a solution without listening, claim the higher intellectual ground, fail to grasp a CXO’s motivations or are openly more interested in themselves or “the deal” will quickly destroy any of the good parts of the equation.  We’ve all sat in front of partners where it is clear that they are “winging” an answer on the basis that time back at the office will allow for a veneer of credibility to be placed over the proposal.  Also, an over willingness to drop in a catalogue of high profile names or organisations  where they have had market leading proposition or success can be another example of excessive self orientation.  Really…Let’s take a look at some of those in more detail…can we see the Case Studies ?…talk to the CIO ?

The demonstration of Trust and Integrity in the CXO – Partner relationship is very important.  The old “safety net” practice doesn’t stand up to scrutiny anymore.  I am not surprised by the results of the survey and hope that we at Broadgate can continue to keep at the forefront.

Consulting Services – Tipping the scales from Risk to Reward

Posted on : 20-07-2011 | By : john.vincent | In : General News

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As a relatively new company it is not that long ago that the partners of Broadgate Consultants were on the “buy side” for consulting services. Over the years we have worked with some great partners who have help us deliver significant and complex change programmes. We couldn’t have done it without them, that is a fact.

Now we are on the trusted advisor side building a business, we spend a lot of time talking to leadership and executives within Technology, Operations and Strategy. These conversations, coupled with our insight of services and the new world economic climate are shaping our thinking in terms of the future expectations with respect to the shape and content of consulting services. Let’s explore some themes.

Get what you pay for:

During the last 20 or so years, the skill and impartiality of consulting partners has been attractive. Indeed, it continues to be the case. With the pressure of delivering change against a companies strategic agenda at an often frantic pace, organisations need to augment their capability with specialists who can hit the ground running. During a tendering or pitch process, the “big guns” do their stuff. Strategies are explored. Confidence in execution capability fleshed out. Ultimately a winner emerges. Everyone is happy.

However, taking a look back, how many times did our level of confidence and enthusiasm wane over the period of the engagement ? Those consultant or partners that impressed with their capability appeared to have been replaced with a “reserve team”. And a much larger team at that. Concerns appeared that delivering the original scope of change in the previously agreed timescales might be a real challenge, if not impossible. Time to wheel back in the bid team again and hey presto, as far as stakeholders are concerned all is well again with the project ( if a little massaged in terms of scope and cost… ).

This “land and expand”, or as someone called it recently “school bus” approach, is on its last legs. The legacy approach of de-risking internal positions ( “…no-one ever got fired for choosing….” ) is only as good as the consistency and depth of capability. Companies are looking for all positions in projects to be resourced with fit for purpose consultants. Indeed, we see the practice of more extensively interviewing partner team members extending further. Clients want value for money, else they might as well just employ individual contractors. For those who pride themselves on only pitching for their core business competency this is a good thing !

Building a Trust Relationship:

An ex colleague recently ran a poll to gauge which characteristics CxO’s should look for most in a partner. Demonstrations of Trust and Integrity scored equally with the ability to Implement and Execute. The latter we’ll touch on a bit later, but let’s consider Trust itself. There is an equation which is useful to illustrate:

Trust = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy / Self Orientation

The trust formula gives a structured way of analysing a quality that is essential to any consulting relationship. By scoring each from 1-10 companies can assess the level of trust. 30 is a perfect but generally unachievable score. It is a goal. However, the important element of this equation is that of Self Orientation. Consulting companies can destroy trust by appearing to be more interested in themselves than being of service to a client. Sound familiar ? Does your advisor focus on the problem or try and “guess” the solution ? Do they say they don’t know or can’t assist or are they claiming divine capability ? Why not try the equation yourself.

Delivery Capability and Track Record:

There is a clear line between advice and execution. However, in the past it was often the case that external advice was disconnected from the practical delivery implications. Both in our experiences from buying services and in discussions with clients we see an increased desire to:

1) Understand the practicalities, pragmatism and success probability for delivery of a strategy
2) Take advice from organisations and individuals who have a demonstrable track record from an equivalent project in terms of complexity and scale

The appetite for having future “shelf ware” which is good in theory but not in practice is gone. No longer can there be a hard stop between those strategising and those that are left with the implementation.

The scales are tipping – you should seek more reward from your advisors…