Are you running a marathon, or becoming a marathon runner?


One of the fundamental reasons organisations struggle with change is that they frame it in the wrong way. I’m not a huge fan of sporting analogies, but forgive me this once.

One day I wake up and say that I want to run the London marathon. There are clear success criteria, clear steps to take and a very clear deadline. I can get my friends and family energised, maybe get them to sponsor me or come and cheer me through to the finish line. Of course, there are things that might get in the way – I might not get a place, I might pull a muscle, but other than that it’s a pretty straightforward (if daunting) task.

This is the “change” that most organisations like to face and are well equipped to achieve.

Now what if I was to wake up that day and say that I wanted to be a marathon runner? How would that change the approach and the context? When would it be achieved, when I’ve done one, two, ten? When I can run a marathon at will? My friends will probably not be too interested, they might even find me a bore and wonder why I’m slogging my guts out after work rather than going for a pint.

This is the change that most organisations are trying to achieve and are struggling with.

The joy of the first scenario is that once it’s done we can forget about it. Go to the pub and have a pie and a pint and spend every weekend on the sofa watching other people run around. We can revert back to our previous behaviours, with the task complete.

The issue with the second scenario is that we are talking about sustainability underpinned by behavioural change. We are transitioning into a new form of being, with no real sense of measurement, but a pretty clear sense of whether it has been achieved or not.

The difference between acting with agility and being an agile organisation.

The problem comes when organisations approach sustainable change with the mindset of task completion. We want to know when it will be done, why it hasn’t happened yet and why no one is coming along on the journey with us. We want the razamataz of the finish line and the medal and all we get is a pile of sweaty training clothes.

Creating meaningful, sustainable change is hard. It takes time, practice and repetition, it takes failure and despair. Worst of all, you’re never really sure if you’ve achieved it, or when or if you’ll arrive. Despite all the sweat, blood and tears, despite all the hard yards, you will only see how far you’ve gone, not how far you need to go.