Strategic Success: Lessons from a Marathon

Map showing the marathon route mentioned in the blog

Sometimes, strategy fails. Even a rigorous plan and putting the right people, processes, and systems in place does not guarantee success. One can either deviate from the strategy, or unexpected events occur that throw your strategy out the window. I recently ran a marathon and likened it to the challenges of managing a strategic project and thought how even the best strategies can fail without adequate planning.

The Project

Scope – The Race Route

Both marathon runners and project managers must resist the temptation to deviate from the established path. Avoid unnecessary detours or scope expansions. The race route defined the scope – a 42.2km marked route. This outlined the path to success.

Time – Milestones & Pace

Project Managers establish milestones and timelines to track progress. Marathon runners set a pace to reach milestones throughout the race. Running too quickly too soon leads to exhaustion and a lapse in form, just as rushing a project may result in compromised quality.

Budget – Energy & Reserves

Each step of a marathon consumes energy. Each activity in a project has an associated cost-in dollars and people. Marathon runners must budget their energy to avoid burnout and endure the entire race. Project managers prevent overspending and team burnout to ensure a successful project completion. Managing budget, whether energy or funds, requires careful planning to prevent depletion before completion.

Quality – Form & Technique

High quality standards are vital for optimal performance. As a runner, maintaining proper form and technique not only avoids injuries, but also keeps energy reserves balanced. Likewise, a project manager upholds quality standards that meet or exceed client expectations.

Risks – Unpredictable Terrain

In a marathon, external factors like weather conditions, changing terrain or elevation can pose risks.  Identifying and managing project risks like adjusting to changing running conditions is vital for both runners and project managers to ensure a smooth and successful journey. Ensure contingency plans are in place to navigate unexpected challenges.

Benefits – Crossing the Finish Line

Be it experiencing the exhilaration of completing the marathon, or relishing in the satisfaction of delivering greater efficiency, innovation, or customer satisfaction, crossing the finish line is the goal for both marathon runners and project managers.

My Marathon Journey

I thought my plan was sufficient. I had the proper gear, sufficient fuel, and support crew at various points along the way. I trained for 4 months and had a clearly defined outcome that I felt confident I would achieve. What actually transpired, was me not sticking to my strategic plan and a race akin to that of the tortoise and hare.

In a marathon there is no option to veer from the race route so that bit was easy. I had clear milestones based on my prior training. I completed the first 25% quicker than expected. It didn’t feel stressful on my body. I was ahead of schedule, under budget, and quality remained high.

However, after 17km the undulating woodland terrain would start to take its toll. The cost on my body was increasing quickly and my heart rate rose uncontrollably. My body was not used to the challenges of undulating terrain. Quality began to decrease. An unanticipated event then occurred. I got cramp in both calves. I stopped briefly and thought of abandoning my project, but chose to adapt my timeline, rely on aid stations for contingency fuel and ensure I completed the marathon.

Lessons Learned

Both marathons and project require meticulous planning, adaptability, and the ability to navigate unexpected challenges. Include these in your plan. Stick to your strategy. I failed to conduct a risk assessment prior to running. I had not run the full distance in training. I had not planned the final 25% of the race. Therefore, my strategy was not as sound as first thought.

I completed the remaining 75% behind schedule, over budget, with poor quality. I would not recommend this when managing a project. If a project is failing or experiencing significant quality issues and risks, do not continue without fixing them. Do not throw extra money at an already failing project. Each project, however, is different and for the sake of a marathon, these rules may not apply. Sometimes though, you need to stop a project. Abandon it and let go.

(In my case I did finish the marathon, just a bit later than I expected to…)

Rich Downey, Consultant, Hague Consulting Ltd. © Hague Consulting Ltd 2023.