What marathons can teach us about bridging the gap between strategy and execution
Corporate environments are overrun by cliches, the default language of the overwhelmed and harried.
One of the most frequent: "It's a marathon, not a sprint." A message frequently distributed by and to folks who haven't actually run a marathon.
As I ran the half marathon in Monterey Bay this weekend (it's a far cry from an actual marathon but I think the principles here hold up), without the headphones I'd neglected to charge, I found myself with ample time to reflect on what makes the race experience so powerful for so many and how those answers can help bridge the strategy-to-execution gap that plagues many high-growth organizations.
1. Defining the distance
Defining the destination in clear, quantifiable terms matters. So does the distance itself.
(13.1 miles is a very different mental schema, filled with greater meaning, than four.)
Imagine, for example, putting a strategy or initiative in motion without desired outcomes and a target timeline to achieve them. The result would be much like asking folks to participate in a race without a finish-line. ("Just keep running.")
People would meander their way through the course because they are, after all, paid to participate in this scenario. The most self-motivated might compose their own goals & outcomes to sustain their effort. But hard to expect that the group in aggregate would be highly effective in executing against a plan without well defined, potentially aspirational parameters.
This sort of race without a finish-line scenario may sound absurd, but it's not entirely uncommon in my experience even for a company's most strategic goals to lack this level of specificity and altitude. And the potential result: a meandering employee base punctuated by a handful of high-performers assiduously creating their own clarity, isn't in my observation uncommon either.
2. Purposeful pursuit
I haven't experienced many events filled with more passion & purpose than half marathons. Beyond the health benefits, it's this sense of purpose that keeps me coming back.
You're typically surrounded by people fueled by deeply individual motivation (age, weight loss, illness, grief) and united by the single, shared goal of crossing the finish-line.
Large, effective initiatives should share this same underlying dynamic. Groups united by a broad pursuit of a clearly shared goal, pushed forward by the strength of individual purpose. Yet these are the softer elements of strategic planning that are often neglected.
What is the shared goal? Is it clear enough to unite varied stakeholder groups? And is it strong and broad enough to cultivate and solicit individual purpose and achievement?
3. Consistent encouragement
One of my favorite parts of running half-marathons is the encouragement from fellow participants and bystanders. It elevates the experience from something potentially rote & grueling to something inspirational and communal, pushing racers through the many mental and physical challenges encountered along the course.
In our work lives, how often do we deploy strategies only to revisit them at the purported finish? How often are our check-in's solely focused on data and progress tracking as opposed to encouragement and deliberate inspiration to continue moving forward? How often do we design a culture of encouragement into strategic execution?
At around mile 8 this weekend, a few miles before the lucidity of my thoughts gave way to the dull but persistent pain of failing hips, I started to consider what a half-marathon might actually look like if it were run like the modern enterprise. (The irony in using that term being that today's enterprise orgs are in so many ways not modern at all, a paradigm still defined by so many direct, structural descendants of an era when assembly lines were considered disruptive.)
What would the race look like? What would it sound like? Would business partners be actively rooting on participants from the sidelines, providing support at key milestones? Would the goals of the race itself be big enough and compelling enough to cultivate personal purpose and a sense of shared achievement? What would training look like? How, in the end, might overall performance vary or differ?
It's an overused cliche but nonetheless true: many things in business are indeed a marathon and not a sprint. But if we dig a bit deeper to understand what truly makes the marathon experience unique, we can potentially deploy the cliche with more effectiveness.