Why the Marathon Effect Matters, Even When You Don’t Run

Do you compete in marathons? How about triathlons? The Cowtown Marathon took place in Ft. Worth just this weekend. I was not a participant! For those of us who cheer on the competitors without getting in the game ourselves, we probably have not ever experienced that “runner’s high“.

The so-called “marathon effect“ however, is a very real phenomenon in the business world specific to change initiatives, originally articulated by William Bridges. You have probably experienced it, whether you realize it or not. The metaphor comes from the long-distance race.
Let me set the stage:

  • The senior leaders initiate the change, similar to starting the race at the front of the pack with the very elite runners.
  • From the start, the senior leaders begin communicating with various stakeholders about the change initiative. They convey its’ importance, its’ benefits and cast a (hopefully inspiring) vision for the future.
  • While the senior leaders continue to run and communicate, the masses of people behind them (ie: the rest of the organization, analogous to average runners) begin to reach the official starting line of the race.
  • The senior leaders naturally get tired of communicating over and over and over by the time they reach mile marker 17-18-19-20. But because the masses in the organization are so far behind the senior leaders in the race, many of them still have not yet heard the important messages at all.

When they figure out this situation has transpired, the senior leaders have 3 options:

  1. Stop communicating altogether (like quitting the race)
  2. Enlist others to assist in cascading their messages (risky, but potentially effective, and often essential) – like one’s support team during a race
  3. Power through to find a second wind, like an elite runner, and keep communicating anyway

Some change initiatives are SO big and SO complex they require many leaders to cast the vision and communicate endlessly. You must find a way to ensure the leaders resist the temptation to stop communicating because they feel like they are repeating the same messages too often. Pockets of the organization will always need to see, hear and feel their leader’s personal inspiration for the new future!

Most changes are a marathon, not a sprint. Run-on, race on, keep inspiring change . . .