Falling short of your goals? A marginal gains approach can help

Call it what you like, a marginal gains approach or incremental change, both of these approaches are significant in creating successful and enduring change. Moreover, if we are looking to change culture and habits, this type of approach has immense benefits.

In learning from my early mistakes in trying to change things as an educational leader, I found that too often the change that I was trying to make was far too big and my initial expectations were too high.

The term ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ (BHAG) was coined by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book entitled Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.

When I first moved into leadership, while I did not have one BHAG, I had lofty goals for everything. The problem was these goals were too big too achieve immediately and when trying to lead my colleagues towards these goals, we either fell short or there was considerable resistance to what was being aimed for.

I have since learnt the importance of generating successful change incrementally or by marginal gains. The notion of margin gains or incremental change is all about generating small steps of change that, as they accumulate, lead to significant considerable change.


To me, marginal gains has the following advantages:

  1. More opportunities for celebrating success and progress.
  2. Is less daunting and feels achievable for those leading the change.
  3. Easier to plan and provide support for.
  4. A chance to catch one’s breath before preparing for the next effort.
  5. Those impacted by the change will be less resistant; asking for and supporting a small modification in behaviour versus a large change in behaviour is likely to be received better.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals are important, they can be compelling, but a road map is needed for how to get there. Next time, we get set for change, consider whether one big jump or several small ones will lead to the change being both manageable and successful.

*Read more about marginal gains, based on how Sir Dave Brailsford used it with the Team Sky cycling team.

Published by Richard Bruford

Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology. With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools. Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin. In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)

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