The 1% rule – what it is and why it’s useful for you as a leader

You might have heard of the 1% improvement rule utilised by Head of British Cycling, Sir Dave Brailsford when he applied the theory of marginal gains to cycling with the UK team who went on to achieve gold medals. Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

It’s a concept called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ – a philosophy of progress and compounding small gains that encourages people to continually search for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.

Even though there have been criticisms of the concept and claims that other things also contributed to the success of the British cycling team in this instance, I still think it’s a useful notion and tool for leaders to think about and experiment with.

I’ve included some coaching questions below to help you bring the 1% rule into your leadership practice, but first let’s look at a few areas in which this idea could apply…

  1. Managing non-performance.

When someone in your team isn’t where they want to be, or where you need them to be, on some aspect of their performance (and assuming you’re both on the same page about what success looks like, the fact that there is a problem and that they are at least open to change), it might be helpful to think about small gains to improve performance. Follow this coaching and exploration up with lots of positive feedback and encouragement when they do improve and keep up the momentum – focusing on the 1% gains happening rapidly (daily or weekly) to address the improvement you need at the pace that’s required.

  1. When you and your team have a big audacious goal that seems a bit out of reach.

There’s a quote about the fact that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If you feel like you’re striving for the impossible – and it’s all feeling like a bridge too far – think about some of the smaller steps or strides that could accelerate your progress. It’s like the domino effect; is there something that might smooth the way or enable you to move faster or further? Anything that would have an out-sized impact if it was improved even slightly?

  1. When you want continuous improvement but want to make it manageable and not overhaul everything.

When you’ve identified red tape or bureaucracy, identified stones in people’s shoes, or just see the opportunity to improve a process or system, it can be tempting (and overwhelming) for it to be a big huge project. Sometimes that’s necessary, but sometimes it’s costly and time-consuming. Maybe the 1% rule can make it a little more manageable, or at least allow you to gain momentum and use low-hanging fruit to try things out or move forward more sustainably?

  1. When you are teaching someone a new skill.

Learning new things can be tough – no matter what age we are. However, if people can see progress when they’re learning, it builds confidence and helps them focus on what they are doing well. Identifying, measuring and highlighting small gains in their progress can be one way to apply this principle to help people learn. Encourage them to notice the subtleties of their progress in this way and you’ll also encourage confidence.

  1. When you or your team feel overwhelmed with too many priorities.

I’m a big fan of focus – and keeping priorities to only the top few, with everything else going on a ‘to don’t’ list (even if it’s just for right now). Identify your top three strategic priorities and keep the rest in your ‘good ideas parking lot’. Then, at each weekly team meeting, apply the 1% rule to each of the three priorities and see how much progress you can make.

If you’re wanting to bring the 1% rule to life in any of these scenarios, or other aspects of your coaching practice, these coaching conversation starters could help…

  • “If we made a 1% improvement in this each day or week, what would that look like? Where would this take us?”
  • “What would be the smallest, do-able step for you to take to bring about improvement in X?” Get collectively clear on what that looks like in measurable terms.
  • “If we take the bike analogy, what are the components of the bike in this situation? Which are the most important components?” This is good for identifying all the places where you can apply the 1% rule and deciding what to prioritise first.
  • “Where can we apply the 1% rule in overlooked and unexpected areas when it comes to X?”
  • If we made that 1% improvement, when would it be realistic to review? How would we measure that? When would we be ready for the next 1% improvement?”

Little micro steps, done often and regularly can lead to big gains. Where else might this be useful in your leadership this week? And I’d love to hear any additional questions you use with your teams to get them thinking in this way also.


  1. Megan on March 18, 2023 at 1:54 pm

    Great information shared in this post. I really love the idea of communicating improvement and growth, by 1% to team members. Before even tackling the problem it puts in perspective the 1%, something that seems reasonable to accomplish. It reminds me of the saying, “you can do anything for 5 minutes.”

    I love how this concept can be used in many aspects of our lives! Great read, thank you!

  2. Dennis Vogel on March 14, 2023 at 9:53 am

    This can be adapted for workers & consumers using unfamiliar products & possibly in unfamiliar conditions. People might think previous methods will work if products seem familiar.
    Products & production machines might be great, but people need to use the right methods for current versions of machines & results. When people revert to habits, they might think they’re doing the right things & figure the machine is bad.
    People might create familiar results though their jobs require different results.
    Familiarity can be divided into increments, so people realize they need to change.
    As 1% increments are mastered, safety & production increase, so another 1% increment can be added to processes.
    It’s good to become comfortable when using methods if comfort doesn’t cause unsafe/unproductive habitual actions. It’s important to not become comfortable too quickly.
    What can people connect from their experiences. It’s common for human minds to seem scrambled when they mentally search for similarities. If new methods are similar to habitual methods, people can slip in easily, but that could be good or bad.
    Which 1% increments apply to current needs? Can those be optimally integrated or adapted?
    Consciously track actions to be sure only what’s optimal is adapted or directly integrated.

  3. Pami Stack on March 10, 2023 at 8:14 am

    Agree Lyn, and love the ‘to do’, ‘to dont’ and ‘to be’ lists.
    The ‘Good ideas parking lot’ concept is great Suzi – not squashing or negating all those innovative ideas that come from enthusiastic korero but putting them slightly to one side where we can still give them 1% attention and thought while focusing on agreed upon priorities.

  4. Lynette Evans on March 8, 2023 at 6:47 pm

    Love this read and approch.
    I will be outting this into practice with our Nelson Bays RTLB team as there is just such an overwhelming amount in education for many at present. This is exactly what I needed to shift the focus into manageable chunks.
    Thanks again Suzie

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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