Amidst all the excitement of Great Britain’s performance this year, there is always one topic which fascinates me most about the Olympics: aggregated marginal gains. This is the theory that, if you take all the different components of an activity, and improve each by just 1%, then overall you get a significant increase in performance.

Dave Brailsford, former performance director of the British Cycling team, made the concept well-known by his well-publicised, fanatical attention to detail. This included the ergonomics of the bike seat, sleeping positions and washing hands properly to avoid infection.

A key element of the aggregated marginal gains concept is that you need to continually be looking for the next place to make a difference. For the 2016 Games, my favourite new improvements have been:

• bikes coated with a top secret aerodynamic paint, also used by British Formula One
• drag resistant skinsuits with special ridges in the material

I think this whole concept captures the media’s interest and our imagination because it goes against a deep-seated behavioural trait: the status quo bias. This is a human tendency to stick with what we know, and generally avoid change. We’re all susceptible to this inertia. As a result, the idea of continuous, incremental innovation makes us wonder: what could change do for us? And what could it do for business, health and other areas outside of sport?

At Ashfield Commercial, we provide a variety of outsourcing services for Pharma and I firmly believe that marginal gains are critical to our success. Our business depends on being able to provide people that are at least as effective, professional and high quality as our client’s own teams. At the same time, we need to offer a service that is more flexible and more cost-effective than a client could create in-house.

A lot has changed in the 20 years since we started: the internet, mobile technology, the financial crisis, Generation Y, an increasingly ageing population, a huge rise in lifestyle and chronic diseases, and numerous scientific developments. Pharma keeps evolving to ensure its sales team operations are fit for todays’ technologies, candidates, customers and healthcare environments.
It’s not enough for us to just keep up with our clients. We have to work hard on all the little details that give us the edge and give clients the reassurance that their brands’ performance and reputation are safe with us.

The first step is identifying where we can make these gains, then applying these consistently across the business. It’s not enough to do it once. And just like the Team GB cyclists, we have to keep looking for new techniques to stay ahead of the competition. We use the ‘after action review’ (AAR) structured de-brief process to help us keep asking: how can it be done better?

The real impact of marginal gains comes from the sum of elements, but here are some of the areas we’ve been focusing on recently:
• Finding and hiring good people fast, without any compromise on quality, is essential to our business. One of our innovations has been providing short candidate video clips to be time efficient and bring the candidate CV to life for the client hiring manager.

• Technological advances, a younger working generation and geographically dispersed field teams, have all required us to be flexible with our approach to employee training. WebEx courses allow delegates to join remotely and our e-learning platform means our employees can develop an individual learning pathway.

• Our ‘Employee of the Month’ scheme has been a small change that helps us recognise our employees and how they live by our values: Quality, Ingenuity, Energy, Partnership and Expertise. Things like this, and our personalised birthday cards, may seem small but they add up to something that matters: showing that everybody is important and makes a difference in the organisation.

• Through our 6 years of experience of running Contact Centres, we’ve learnt that the skill set and materials you need to open conversations and detail effectively over the phone are quite different to in the field. A recent ‘Employee of the Month’ is a great example. Barnaby Meek not only spent nearly an hour detailing a GP partner via Webex, he also booked an appointment for the client’s field representative to promote a new product in person.

• Transparency builds trust. We invest in interactive dashboards because the best way for us to be transparent is to give clients easy, direct access to the activity and performance data of our sales teams.

The list goes on. But like the master of marginal gains himself, Dave Brailsford, we’ll keep some of the details close to our chest.

If you’re interested to hear more about our services or approach, please contact me at or +44 (0)7860 784748.


Photo source: EBC Agencia Brasil