Think really small . . . and very big

The smallest edge can make the biggest difference. Consider the remarkable photograph below from the 1896 Olympics, taken at the starting line of the 100-meter dash. Only one of the runners, Thomas Burke, crouched in the now-standard four-point stance. The race began in the next moment, and 12 seconds later Burke took the gold; the time saved by his stance helped him do it. Today, sprinters start in this way as a matter of course—a good analogy for the business world, where rivals adopt best practices rapidly and competitive advantages are difficult to sustain.

The variety of stances among runners in the 100-meter sprint at the first modern Olympic Games, held in Athens in 1896, is surprising to the modern viewer. Thomas Burke (second from left) is the only runner in the crouched stance—considered best practice today—an advantage that helped him win one of his two gold medals at the Games.

The good news is that intelligent players can still improve their performance and spurt back into the lead. Easy fixes are unlikely, but companies can identify small points of difference to amplify and exploit. The impact of “big data” analytics is often manifested by thousands—or more—of incrementally small improvements. If an organization can atomize a single process into its smallest parts and implement advances where possible, the payoffs can be profound. And if an organization can systematically combine small improvements across bigger, multiple processes, the payoff can be exponential.By Helen Mayhew, Tamim Saleh, and Simon Williams-Digital McKinsey

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