Marginal gains for development teams

Happy new year!

Human beings have seemingly been making new year’s resolutions for around 4,000 years. There is something about the year incrementing by one that somehow encourages folks to examine their past failures and vouch to do better in the year ahead.

And yet, research (and plenty of personal experience) shows that around 80% of resolutions will be broken by the second week of February.

Focus on systems not goals

I’ve been considering this a lot over the last few weeks, both personally and for the Scrum teams that I’m working with and this quotation from author James Clear has been resonating a lot with me:

You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems. Your goal is your desired outcome. Your system is the collection of daily habits that will get you there. This year, spend less time focusing on outcomes and more time focusing on the habits that precede the results. — James Clear

I’m a fan of cycling, so let’s take an example from British cycling. For decades, it has been the goal of British cycling teams to win the Tour de France. Team after team tried and failed. Before 2012, only four British cyclists had worn the famous yellow race leader’s jersey: Tom Simpson (1962), Chris Boardman (1984, 1997 and 1998), Sean Yates (1994) and David Millar (2000). But none had won the race overall. The goal had always been the same but a goal wasn’t enough.

In 2010, (now Sir) Dave Brailsford became the manager of a new professional cycling team, Team Sky. He brought with him the ‘marginal gains’ approach he had been using as performance coach with the British Cycling team since 2003. This approach examined every aspect of the rider and their bike and tried to optimise every element to shave off a few microseconds here, a few seconds there: use the best seat, find the best riding position, the lightest tyres, the most aerodynamic shorts, the best nutrition, the most optimal training routine, etc. Eventually, the improvements all added up — “mony a mickle maks a muckle” as we say in Scotland — and Team Sky went on to win the Tour de France in 2012, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 (as Team Ineos).

In other words, by focused on optimising their systems Team Sky recognised that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” And if your systems are good then you will by default meet your goals. It’s what legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh said, if you get your system right and optimise it to the highest standard then the score will look after itself.


There is an inherent recognition within Agile/Scrum that teams “fall to the level of [their] systems”. The regular heartbeat of sprint planning, daily scrum, refinement, review and retrospective provides the framework in which experimentation and learning takes place.

While a goal is important for setting the direction, instead, this year, focus on optimising the system. Focus on using the Scrum framework to you team’s best advantage.

  • How can you get the most value from sprint planning sessions? How can you collectively work together on the plan?
  • What helps your team most during daily scrums?
  • How can you use refinement sessions most effectively for ensuring you build in quality to your software?
  • Who do you need to invite to your sprint reviews so you get the best feedback?
  • Do you need to agree to fewer actions from retrospectives to ensure you have the time and focus to improve before racing to the next action?

As a team, focus on good habits and doing them well. Use the short feedback loops that sprints provide to fail fast, learn and improve. And if you do that, the results should take care of themselves.

Originally posted on my work blog.

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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