There are so many amazing benefits to endurance sports like marathon running. Some of them are obvious to an outsider: Improved physical health. More mental resilience. Guilt-free eating of pasta and pizza! Not to mention that amazing feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing something incredibly difficult (and that many others think is crazy).
This last benefit points to another important one that’s often overlooked: Training for a marathon is a perfect metaphor for how to skillfully approach some of the stickiest challenges in our professional lives. For many of our clients, this challenge is digital transformation – how to remain relevant in a fast-changing landscape, in which it’s harder than ever to keep and build loyalty with the stakeholders who are central to achieving our missions. Yet it strikes me as equally apt for any number of long-term initiatives we take on in trying to create social change.
In my experience here are a few principles from the world of long-distance running that are especially relevant.
This is going to take a while.
By definition, a marathon is not a sprint. This means we need to pace ourselves—if we try to go too fast, we will run out of gas. An uphill mile may require a lot from us, but even with this immediate challenge, we have to keep some energy, patience, and passion in reserve for the miles to come.
Burn-out in our professional work is real. I have seen it happen and been affected by it as well. Our task is to make sure everyone in the organization is aligned to our change effort—and this takes time to get right. Rushing the process typically leads to negative experiences, regardless of how strong the loyalty of our staff to the mission. Set interim mile markers for yourself so you can assess progress and learn how well you’re pacing towards the end state.
This requires preparation.
Marathon training is carrying your own water, and making sure you have cash or an ability to buy more if you run out. You can’t just wing it, leave the house with only a pair of shoes, and expect to meet your goal for the day. Likewise, it requires re-evaluating the status quos like your typical eating and sleeping habits. If you are going to make it you need the right nutrition and rest.
When you invest in setting up the right structures and processes, it sometimes feels like time isn’t being spent on the “actual work” itself. This thinking needs to evolve. Planning is part of the project, not a nice to have. It’s critical to know who is doing what, when, and who needs to review and approve which items—because not having these established elements can drive progress to a dead stop. Yet as the landscape around you changes, make sure to remain adaptable and challenge the false idea that there’s only one single way to run the race.
This isn’t always glamorous. You have to want it.
Marathon training is making yourself wake up when everyone else is sleeping and no one is waiting to cheer you on. To bask in that feel-good glory at the finish line of the big race, you rely on faith that the short-term difficulty is worth the eventual payoff. That both the journey and the destination are intrinsically worth it—and that the necessary accumulation of miles over time is the only way to build towards longer-term gains. Self-discipline is key, especially when it’s uncomfortable and inconvenient.
When working on a multi-year change effort, there will be many days where you are not sure if all the steps are lining up right, when you’ve had so many meetings you are never sure when the follow-up work will get done. The daily practice of being present, focused and disciplined, rather than distracted, will make sure you achieve your aim.
This requires learning how to feel and understand pain.
Some pains are hurts that you learn to work through with support. Without a doubt once an ache starts to feel a bit better, a new one is likely to appear (at least for me at this age). Meanwhile an injury demands that you stop—all the motivation in the world can’t change it. If you want to be able to run again, you have to sit out for a bit.
The heart of transformation is never strictly about technology, design or work processes—it is about supporting the people that work in your organization. Some of your staff members will experience inevitable pain because change is never easy (even when we know it’s coming). You will need to properly understand and address their pains before you can move forward. Also, as the change agent who’s leading these efforts, it is especially important to understand your own anxieties and pressure level, ask for help, and take some breaks from time to time.
This means finding some peace with the voice(s) in your head.
Running for hours, you’ll notice yourself having long, drawn-out dialogues with that nagging voice in your head—the one that goes from “Zippity doo dah!” to “O dear Lord! Why?” in the course of just a few miles. It is a personal journey of discovery. It is about willpower over the status quo. Don’t believe me? Sign up for one and let me know if you don’t have at least one (if not more) people tell you why you shouldn’t be doing it. This work teaches you the importance of relating to your inner voice with amusement, interest and friendliness.
Doubt comes to all of us, no exception. Expect it, but don’t yield to it. Find the bright spots in the effort—the learning that you’re gaining from working on such an effort, the number of people you get to meet from across the organization, the partnerships you’re forming with change agents in other institutions.
This takes active support from the people you love.
While running a marathon is personal, it also calls for a village of support. If your family does not respect this choice or believe it’s important for you, it’s a path to ruin because the miles get long. It’s inevitable that you’re sometimes going to be worn out at times when they’re feeling high energy. On the other hand, if your loved ones respect your commitment to creating change in the world through your work, encouraging you when it’s hardest, you will find the reserves of energy you need to pull through.
When you take on organizational transformation, make sure you understand the needs and worries of the staff and leadership, and then build your team so that you have a powerful cross-section of representation and support.
So, remember: the path is long and impact over time matters. Like the finish line on race day you need to hold a vision of what the outcome you are working towards looks like, and hold that thought as a focal point to carry you through the lonely miles—knowing that every step along the path is getting you one step closer to making the vision a reality.