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How innovation improves performance and helps us sleep better at night

Updated: Dec 19, 2020

Innovation can come from the smallest and simplest of changes, it’s about opening up our minds and looking for opportunities – looking for those marginal gains.

This was one of my many takeaways from a brilliant talk by Fran Millar, Director of Operations and Head of Winning Behaviour at Team Sky, the British professional cycling team, at the Productivity Summit in London last week.

Fran shared the story of how Team Sky went from being a mediocre to a world-class winning team.

The performance of British riders had been so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they were afraid that it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear. – Richard Moore, Mastermind: How Dave Brailsford Reinvented the Wheel

Getting there was far from easy, and as Fran explained, involved hard work, sacrifices and significant change. One way they did this was through the concept of marginal gains, which involves making small incremental changes which add up to significant improvements.

To do this you need to change your mindset and ask yourself, how am I going to be 1% better tomorrow than I am today?

For Team Sky it involved innovation and changes that challenged the status quo in a variety of ways. One of my favorites is how they made the rebellious decision to kit out their rider’s hotel rooms during the Tour de France competition, replacing the sub-standard furnishings with personalised pillows and mattresses to help them get a good night’s sleep.

As an employee engagement rebel I absolutely love this as it points out a few key things when it comes to being a rebel:

1. You need to think outside of the box

Fran explained that before they made the decision to re-kit the hotel rooms they went through a variety of other options, all being met with resistance and ultimately opposition. But this didn’t stop them, they pushed on to find a solution that worked for the race organizers as well as Team Sky, thinking completely outside of the box.

In HR, we need to do the same thing, challenging what we do, facing up to resistance, and finding a solution that will help us achieve our business and people objectives. An example of this is with how companies such as Gap Inc. are ditching traditional and ineffective performance management programs, ‘re-kitting’ their performance ‘rooms’ and driving performance.

2. You need to think of your team’s ‘comfort’

With Team Sky they focussed on the comfort of their riders, understanding that if they had a good night’s sleep they would perform better in the race the next day.

In HR, we need to think and act the same way. Ask ourselves what can we do to meet the needs of our workforce, to make it more comfortable for them and driving engagement for the business?

An example of this is what a New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian, have done in piloting a 4-day work week. What makes this unique (and rebellious) is that they don’t do what others do with 4-day work weeks by compressing 40 hours into 4 days, but instead pay employees to work 5 days, and then expect them to work 4 normal days. This makes it more comfortable for employees, and at the same time drives productivity with employees being more efficient during their reduced schedules.

3. You’re going to get some strange looks

As Team Sky members carried mattresses and pillows in and out of hotel rooms, I’m sure they got some very strange looks. But they didn’t care, they were doing what was right for their team and for their business.

In HR, we shouldn’t fear strange looks, in fact, we should aim for them. Examples I write about in my book are Brewdog and their pawternity leave benefit, LinkedIn and their PerkUp! Benefit, and Goodman Masson and their benefits boutique. They’re all innovative and at the same time, probably got a few strange looks at first!

In ending let me encourage you to try out this concept of marginal gains, looking for small yet powerful ways to drive change and improved employee engagement at your company. And, if you’re lucky, they’ll help you all sleep better at night and perform better the next day!


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