The day after my last post, I came across something that coincidentally brought together my last two themes: Increments and Fail.
Economist Tim Harford tells the story of the British Olympic Cycling Team’s success in the track events where they won seven of the ten available gold medals at London 2012. While many reasons can be given for their success, Tim highlights the efforts of sports scientist Matt Parker, Head of Marginal Improvements for the GB Cycling Team. He is credited for helping to identify various ways in which the Team could improve their performance, including:
- Heated Pants, which helped keep the athletes’ muscles warm while waiting for the race to begin;
- Cleaning bike tyres with alcohol to give them better grip for a faster get away; and
- Devising ways of helping the athletes to recover during the one hour wait between the semi-final and final races (GB athletes often achieved faster times in the finals vs semi-finals, whereas the competition generally recorded the opposite).
Searching out these marginal improvements helped the GB athletes dominate in the velodrome. Tim suggests that we can all use similar techniques to find ways of improving everything we do.
But when we become too engrossed by incremental improvements, we can fool ourselves into believing that the sum of many little successes equals one big discovery. We would like to think that investing in low risk/low cost endeavours is sufficient. However the truth is that small efforts rarely win big prizes, London 2012 notwithstanding. Like Venture Capitalists, we must be willing to back long shots, which by definition usually fail. And that brings us back to the question of how we deal with failure.