Marginal Gains

There is always room for improvement within any church or organization. Today, we are taking a look at where to begin, the steps to be taken, and ultimately how to achieve your greatest goals!

This month, we are discussing our topic from the last All Staff meeting we held. We looked at how we can improve using the idea of marginal gains, and what this meant for our teams. Let’s get into it!

Be Honest with Where You Are

Be realistic about where you currently are. That sounds so simple. But leaders tend to think they are being realistic when they focus on what’s not working or on where they’re failing. William Arthur Ward said, “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” I am continually adjusting my sails. As a leader, you have to be a constant analyst.

Critiquing vs. Being Critical

One of the things that I had to input into our culture was the skill of honestly critiquing everything. Now, there’s a big difference between being critical and critiquing. Being critical focuses on the negative, while critiquing focuses on what could be improved. We critique everything we do because we know others will do it for us if we don’t do it ourselves. Therefore, we regularly analyze everything we do and ask, “Could we do it better?” We don’t always keep that analysis positive. Our tendency is to try to avoid conflict and keep everything positive, but sometimes it’s okay to allow a little bit of conflict or negative talk. This can help to dig out the real issues. If you don’t allow it in a controlled meeting, it will happen on the outside, so it’s best to discuss it while in private. My only stipulation is that if we address a problem, we must also focus on a solution to that problem. That’s how you keep things positive and moving forward.

Count Everything

If we see a slump in one area or another, we ask if we are missing something or if we need to change it. We never allow ourselves to make excuses for poor results because excuses remove our power to do anything about it. I can make excuses or I can make progress, but I can never do both. I think counting everything and analyzing the data is vital because you can’t manage what you don’t measure. When you get the data, you have a choice as to what you can do with it. You can make an excuse as to why the number is lower than expected, or you can make the necessary adjustment and set your sails accordingly.

Excuses remove our power to do anything about poor results. #leadership #marginalgains Click To Tweet


Self-talk is a game-changer. We often tend to believe more of what we hear ourselves say than what we hear others say. Self-talk is not only a powerful business and ministry tool but an effective lifestyle tool if done constructively. I once heard someone define thinking as self-talk. I like that because all of us do it, whether we are aware of it or not. Once I became aware of that, I began to realize that I should consciously guard my self-talk and guide it with positive, forward-moving talk. Good self-talk doesn’t ignore the obstacle or difficulty in front of you but instead focuses you on being solution oriented instead of problem focused.

A good example of this is the difference between the 10 spies in Numbers 13, and Joshua and Caleb. The 10 spies’ self-talk was focused on how big the enemy was and how strongly fortified their cities were. They were problem focused whereas Joshua and Caleb said, “We are well able” and, “God will make a way.” The two men didn’t ignore the enemy or their fortified cities, they just chose to focus their attention and talk on the solutions that would enable them to overcome those obstacles.

Think Big, Start Small

I once heard a quote from Seth Godin that read, “The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track — this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes.”  The truth is, we as leaders often like to go from peak to peak, focusing on the outcomes instead of the journey. It’s our tendency to continually focus on big thinking and forget that it takes day-to-day, roll-up-your-sleeves hard work, and small steps to get there. For me, the key to continuing to think big, but at the same time starting small, has been to celebrate the little things along the way. This keeps myself, as well as my team, motivated in the mundane daily work. If I set smaller progressive goals along the way to our big destination, and then celebrate once we get there, it keeps us focused and moving forward until we reach the ultimate, big-thinking goal. Celebrate the journey every step of the way.

Focus On The Process Not The Results

Leaders have been taught for years to be results focused. Consequently, leaders tend to allow the big picture obsession to downplay the power of the process. As leaders, we are typically the visionaries or big picture thinkers, but we need to realize that most of our team is not. That means they don’t often see the end result like we do.  When we paint a picture for them of what that result will look like, they often view it as an immediate outcome, and that we will be there quickly. I know I have made this mistake many times as a leader. I see a big goal for the organization and share it with everyone prematurely which makes for disappointment when we don’t reach it quickly. Peter Drucker said, “People often overestimate what they can accomplish in one year. But they greatly underestimate what they could accomplish in five years.” With this being the case, it’s important for us as leaders to be wise in what we share and when we share it. It is wiser as a leader to focus on the process and celebrate the little steps rather than just on the big picture. This keeps the team focused and motivated to move forward.

Small Improvements Add Up to Massive Differences

Recently, I heard a story from my friend Rex Crain about the 1986 Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. They were heralded as the best team ever assembled but, ended up losing in the semi-finals that year. It was a major disappointment and you can imagine how their coach, Pat Riley, felt. In the offseason, he decided to do something about it. Instead of relying just on motivating the team as a whole to do better, he instead decided to work with each individual player on making marginal gains in their own development. He recorded every player’s performance from each game the previous year and built a formula to calculate an overall personal score. Then he challenged each one to improve by just one percent in the next season. Of course, each player agreed because one percent was doable and they went to work on making their marginal gain. Then, Coach Riley used the same formula throughout the next season so that each player could see how they were progressing. It worked! Every player improved. The lowest level of improvement was 5% and the overall average was a 12% improvement. The team went on to win 2 straight championships and appeared in 4 of the next 5 NBA championships. So at All Staff, I told this story and then asked our team to work on areas in their own departments and with their own team in which they could get just one percent better. I believe if each team member and each department got just one percent better, the overall effect on the organization would be astronomical.

Progress Is In Your Control

Like I said before, we can make excuses or we can make progress, but we can’t do both. This reminds me of when I first began working with our worship team. We began with how they practiced. I attended each practice and had the team focus on how they would rehearse each song. Then, we worked on each player and vocalist and had them prepare individually for their part. We got rid of the “just wing it” mentality and had them rehearse a specific part. Then, we worked on the presentation of the songs they were learning and had each member watch videos of themselves alongside videos of other worship leaders to compare where they could make improvements.

This whole process happened over the course of 3 to 4 years. We made little steps like removing worship stands from the stage. The team was now individually rehearsed and prepared and in watching videos of themselves, they realized how much of a barrier these stands created between them and the congregation. After learning their parts, we focused on their tones because music is just a sum of sounds blended together. The better the sounds and blend, the better the song is received overall. Now, here we are 6 years into the process and we are not only better, but are now writing, producing, and releasing our own worship songs! I saw this as a goal years ago, but if I would have cast that vision from the beginning, we would have skipped a number of valuable steps along the way or would have given up in the process and settled with where we were. This way, we celebrated each step along the way and are now seeing the fruit of that progression.

Daily Investments

Small daily investments are the way to produce big changes. The secret here seems to be that in the patience of daily investments, momentum begins, though momentum at times seems nearly invisible. I challenge our leaders to listen to podcasts daily, read books weekly, and to attend conferences yearly. I encourage them to grow themselves first, and then monthly I train them in leadership at our All-Staffs as well. Each one doesn’t make a noticeable difference, but over time, these behaviours have made a huge improvement in our organization and on the individuals who have invested in themselves this way.

Small daily investments are the way to produce big changes. #marginalgains Click To Tweet

As a leader myself, I continually listen to leadership podcasts, read books and leadership blogs, meet with mentors and ask them lots of questions, and attend conferences at churches much bigger than mine. I am constantly working on bettering myself as a leader because I know that if I stop growing, I will stop leading and my organization will stop growing. I take that very seriously.

What I love about the marginal gains concept is that it will work for anyone, anywhere, at any time, regardless of the size or scope of their ministry or business. The fact is, once you are realistic about where you currently are and you focus on making marginal gains in each area you are involved in, you will advance forward. You don’t build Rome in a day, but you will grow and eventually get to where you want to be. Imagine if every church leader made marginal gains this year. Imagine if every church grew by one percent. That might not seem like much for the church of 100 people. But, if every church in the world did that, there would be millions of more people in the Kingdom this time next year. So, let’s do it! Why? Because the church is the hope of the world, on a mission to reach every available person, at every available time, by every available means, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by creating churches unchurched people love to attend.

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