1% Improvement

It's not always sweeping change, but small tweaks that get results.

Photo of Mark Carlucci

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I was really inspired by this article, http://jamesclear.com/marginal-gains. It speaks of how, in 2010, Dave Brailsford took over the British professional cycling team and by making just 1% improvements, he help lead the team to multiple victories.

I was often timid to try new ideas because of the drastic changes required. But when I looked at implementing small changes, and breaking larger chances into smaller chunks, I have found myself more confident to give things a try. A bunch of small changes can really add up.


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Photo of Michael Schurr

Hi Mark, How are you? I think you are onto a great idea here and the comments below have really started to frame it out in more detail. We would love for you to share it in the ideate phase.

A couple of questions that might help frame out this idea:
What’s this idea about?
Why is this an idea that creates a culture of innovation?
How would you pitch this to other teachers in your school? Your principal?
How’d you get this idea off the ground?

Please don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or want to talk the idea out in more detail!

Photo of Emma Scripps

+1 to what Michael said! This was one of our favorite posts to the Discover phase. I hope to see it continue forward to Ideate. Remember - half baked are encouraged!

Photo of Tom Sayer

This is a fascinating perspective and is directly opposite Google's view of 10x thinking, whereby incremental changes don't get you far. You must aim for the near impossible to really change things.

I wonder if there is common ground? Or places were one view is more applicable? I certainly think that 10x thinking can at times intimidate people to inaction.

Photo of Mark Carlucci

I think there is definitely a place for both. It would completely depend on the situation.
In my math classroom, I have often found that most students have an expectation of how math class runs. Any deviation from their expectation often leads to increased math anxiety. Something to the effect of, "I had enough trouble before, now you are changing it."
By making a small change each semester, I was able to quell much of anxiety over the change. With each successive group of students, their initial expectations where more inline with what I was doing, as previous students told them of the success that we had.
Showing success with the small changes and leaving students seeing me as the math teacher that does "weird" things, has allowed me to make bigger changes without building anxiety over it.
In my computer engineering and tech design classes it is a much different situation. I get a lot of students coming into grade 9 and 10 without much computer background beyond basic skills. They have never been in class like mine and have no background.
In these classes I regularly make bigger changes, and they are just considered the way.

I think the small changes are great to get us over the initial hump and also to make tweaks to bring something that is working to the next level. That would be the case of the British cycling team. They were already a solid professional team, it was making small refinements to make them just a little better then all the other pros.

Photo of Dan Ryder

Fantastic share; would love to hear the story of one or two 1% changes you've adopted that you feel have been successful in some way - and also one that maybe still didn't go so well or continues to be a sticky wicket?

Photo of Mark Carlucci

One of the first things was progressing towards trying a skills based type of assessment. I was not completely comfortable breaking from what I had been doing for the past 6 years. Rather than diving right in, I tested the waters.
Rather moving right away from traditional units, I started breaking them into smaller pieces. I gave several mini-tests each unit. Basically, I broke things down into smaller skill sets. I started seeing an increase in success. Students were scoring 10% higher on tests, and they were starting to become more confident about their abilities.
It was a small change, but I started seeing big results. It gave me the confidence to start doing more, little bits at a time, and over the course of the past few years I have started building a much more successful course.

One I am still working on is progressing to having my tech students keep an engineering notebook. Especially with my grade 9s and 10s. I tried just starting simple and getting them the last 10 minutes of a period to make note of what they worked on that day. Most days, I was lucky if I even got something like, "Today I programmed."
Often times when I would review a students book, it several weeks would be summed up in one page. "Today I _______." No dates or anything else.
I have tried many things; giving them a template; trying to work with individuals about what to put; "hinting" at what to put. I am wondering if 1%-ing it is not the way to go. Maybe it needs to be a big leap.

Photo of Dan Ryder

It seems you are making meaningful change via this 1% approach and I wonder if a big leap is necessary if what you are doing is working. At the same time, what has you thinking it needs to be a big leap? What might a big leap look like?

I'm hoping to expand on sketchnoting and thinking notebooks in my classes this year as well. My first design challenge for my students might be designing personal sketchbooks for one another based on empathy interviews.

Photo of Mark Carlucci

If things are working, if think, bigger leaps become easier. As everyone is success from the small changes, bigger changes don't seem so intimidating.
I am thinking big leap, just to try a different approach. Maybe making it a bigger change will make it seem like an important activity, encourage them to spend some time improving their notebook skills.
Sketchnoting seems really interesting. I just looked it up. I might be worth trying with some of my students. I teach a large number of students that focus in arts and culture. That may make them more comfortable in my math and tech classes.

Photo of Dan Ryder

I'm definitely seeing where you are coming from with the big leaps vs the little leaps. One of my greatest challenges over the years is creating a more and more comfortable environment for kids to take those big leaps -- amazing how grading practices and classroom policies can have such an impact on student trust and willingness to make mistakes. (Once we start thinking about it with intention, perhaps not so amazing?) What sort of groundwork do you think you'd need to set to put your big notebook/sketchbook leap into action?

There are some tremendous resources online for sketchnoting -- check out Sketchnote Army, the work of Austin Kleon, Brad Ovenell-Carter, Traci Clark -- and I'd recommend The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown as a text worth owning.

Photo of Bob Weiman

I recently read Switch- How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath, who also discussed the idea of breaking tasks into manageable chunks to make the easier to accomplish and less overwhelming. A great concept for both school and home!

Photo of Emma Scripps

One other thing this post made me think of - http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/07/20/rethinking-exercise-as-a-source-of-immediate-rewards/?action=click&pgtype=Homepage®ion=CColumn&module=MostEmailed&version=Full&src=me&WT.nav=MostEmailed&_r=0

If you try to think of complete transformation - it's like "oy - I can't get there. Yikes." But if you just think about "hey I want this one small change" then it's easier to get started.

I love the messaging around 1% improvement. Could see this getting blown up into an idea come the ideate phase. How would you normalize language around
"1% improvement"

Photo of Emma Scripps

Hey! Great post. Noticed you didn’t upload a photo. Adding a photo helps to make your post more fun and engaging for others to read. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there. I like to take a screenshot of something or just pull a photo from the web.

Photo of Sandee Bisson


Great points! I think a lot of teachers suffer from change fatigue. There always seems to be some new approach or initiative to adopt. Remembering that we don't have to do everything, just adopt the one or two pieces that seems to have most impact, can be a lifesaver. Thank you!