The last mile of the marathon

A few years ago, my daughter ran her first marathon. She then decided to take a short break from running: first, to get a well-deserved rest for her body, and second, to take care of business left neglected due to the rigorous schedule of pre-marathon training.

She returned to the trail 2-3 weeks later to run her first post-marathon routine, only 3-mile long. Although her body felt perfectly rested, my daughter was surprised how difficult it was to finish the distance. “You would expect that someone who’s just run 26 miles shouldn’t feel troubled with running only three,” complained she over the phone, “yet, I’ve barely made it.”

We talked a bit about that, and it became apparent to both of us that my daughter’s problem was mental, not physical. When she set her mind on running the whole 26 miles, the first 20 felt almost like a regular training; the real struggle began during the last few. But when she knew that the target was only three miles, the most difficult last mile began almost instantly.

I see an interesting parallel here with how firms set their corporate innovation targets.

Yes, I know: these targets must be realistic (SMART, CLEAR, PURE, you name it). Setting unrealistic targets are said to increase the probability of failure, which, despite our professed passion for celebrating it, still damages the innovation team’s morale and credibility, to say nothing about the team members’ bonuses and career prospects.

We therefore quietly settle on what is euphemistically called “early wins,” which are no more than easily achievable half-targets. And yet, we then often struggle to hit even these relaxed targets because…well, because the most difficult last mile begins almost instantly.

One can routinely hear complaints that corporate innovation is too incrementalas opposed to being disruptive. In fact, there is nothing wrong with incremental innovation: it represents a key part of any balanced innovation portfolio. The problem arises when incremental innovation is not a well-planned and carefully executed project aimed at improving the firm’s core offerings, but rather an aborted attempt at innovating something larger and more ambitious.

It’s like instead of covering the whole marathon distance, we run until we feel that our muscles are numb, and our lungs gasping for air. At which point, we walk off the trail and declare mission accomplished (and celebrate an early win).

In a recent HBR article, Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez argues that when evaluating and prioritizing projects, looking at the business case alone isn’t enough. Firms also need to understand how the project connects to what the author calls higher purpose. It is defining projects for their purpose that is the best way to understand whether or not they make sense strategically.

I fully agree. Successful corporate innovation requires many things: strong executive leadership, well-defined innovation strategy, functional innovation governance, tools and processes, talent management, etc., etc., etc.

But every innovation project begins with a goal, with a destination. And only after defining this destination it is possible to choose the luggage you’ll carry during the bumpy innovation journey.

It’s like when leaving your house in running gear in the morning, you should know what you’re up to: to run the full marathon or just to jog for a few miles before breakfast.

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About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is the Founder of (WoC)2, an innovation consultancy that helps organizations extract maximum value from the wisdom of crowds by coordinated use of internal and external crowdsourcing.
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