Marginal Gains

Big results come from a series of small, incremental improvements.

There’s something seductive about quick wins, because we all desire fast results with minimal effort. We’re biased to believe that somewhere out there, there’s a perfect solution that’ll solve all our problems. And you often see people exploit this desire via weight loss programs, get-rich-quick schemes, etc.

But in reality, there’s usually no “easy path” to success. And there usually isn’t one single thing you can do that will guarantee success. In the real world, big wins come from marginal gains: a series of less-than-perfect solutions that, when combined, yield high effectiveness.

Few solutions work 100% of the time. But a solution that’s less than 100% effective is still very useful, especially if you combine it with other solutions. This is sometimes called the Swiss cheese model. It teaches us that a combination of imperfect risk mitigation tactics yields high-percentage results.

We all want certainty, so we have a natural tendency to seek solutions with 100% effectiveness. But such solutions are rare, and focusing on “perfect” solutions can lead us to disregard other very adequate, and more pragmatic, solutions. In the field of software we call this the silver bullet fallacy: the desire to focus excessively on perfect solutions at the expense of otherwise satisfactory solutions. As the saying goes, perfect is the enemy of good.

The path to marginal gains is through kaizen: a focus on continuous improvement over time. Incremental, evolutionary improvements often yield better results than attempting to make everything perfect in one shot.

Further study: