The last mile of a marathon

In the mid oimagesf September, my daughter ran–and finished!–her first marathon, and as a parent, I’m very proud of her. She then decided to take a short break from running: first, to get much needed rest for her body, and second, to take care of some personal business left neglected due to the rigorous marathon preparation schedule. So it took her a few weeks to return to the running trail, and a couple of days ago, she ran her first post-marathon distance, only 3 miles long. Although her body felt quite rested, my daughter was surprised with how difficult it was for her to finish these 3 miles. “You would expect that a person who’s just run 26 miles shouldn’t feel troubled with running only 3,” complained she to me over the phone. “Yet, I’ve barely made it.”

We talked a little bit about it and it became apparent to both of us that the problem was mental, not physical. When my daughter set her mind on running the whole 26 miles, the first couple dozens of them passed completely unnoticed, and the real struggle began during a few last miles. But when she knew that the target was only 3 miles, the most difficult last mile came in almost instantly.

I see an interesting parallel here with the way we set targets for our innovation projects. Yes, I know: these targets must be realistic. Setting unrealistic targets increases our chances of failure, which, despite the burgeoning movement to celebrate it, still damages the innovation group’s morale and credibility, to say nothing about the team members’ career prospects. So we quietly settle for what we euphemistically call “early wins,” which in reality are no more than easily achievable half-targets. Yet, quite interestingly, we then often struggle to hit even these “relaxed” targets because…well, because the last mile is always the last mile.

We routinely hear complaints that our innovation is too “incremental” (as opposed to being “breakthrough” or “radical”). In fact, there is nothing wrong with incremental innovation per se, for it represents the basis of any balanced innovation portfolio. The problem arises when incremental innovation is not a well-planned and carefully implemented process of improvement of a company’s core offerings, but rather an aborted attempt at innovation radical. Instead of covering the whole marathon distance, we run until we feel that our muscles get stony and our lungs begin gasping for air. At this point, we walk off the trail and declare mission accomplished (and celebrate an early win instead of a failure).

Am I trying to compare radical innovation to a marathon? Why not? After all, radical innovation and marathon have at least one thing in common: you don’t do it every single day.

image credit: DietDiva

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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