Monday, September 27, 2010

Strategy – Is it a Marathon, Sprint or Both?

Courtesy: Google Images

While we have used quite a few metaphors in the past to explain the purpose-profit balanced strategies – the one, that has caught my attention the most, in recent days is – “Is Strategy, a marathon, sprint or both?” Granted, the street often pushes the firms to run the race with a sprint like mentality producing quick wins– yet, history is also, filled with examples of firms fading away in to the doldrums (after producing those early quick wins)- partly because of their lack of marathon like mindset. Hence, the question before us today is -do we execute our strategies with a sprint mindset, marathon mindset, or both?

Solomon – the wisest man ever lived – once, said -“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity”. In other words, the appropriate speed in which we react to business situations depend upon the seasons of the business cycle - and so it is important that we get in tune with the business seasons first - before deciding whether to execute our strategies with a sprint or marathon mindset. What do I mean by that?

As it turns out - the concept of seasons is what gives us the confidence that every down cycle in life or business has a beginning and an end. In other words – if situations like misfortunes, misunderstandings, quarrels, failures, disappointments, profit or loss -have no end, our life will be totally meaningless (and perhaps even boring). As a matter of fact, if there is no down time – we will not be able to even appreciate the goodness of up time – much less experiencing them.

Likewise, if we look at the characteristics of sprint and marathon races – we can clearly understand that - both have start and finish lines, and yet – what happens between their start and finish lines are a different story. In a sprint, the effort is focused on reaching the finish line in seconds or perhaps in minutes, and so the runners push hard, giving the whole energy they’ve got till they reach the finish line. Also,the timely start is critical, as it makes up the huge percentage of the race, and even a tiny stumble can cost them a heavy damage much less winning the trophy. On the other hand, in a marathon, runners know that they’re going to be running for a long time, and so pacing is critical for them to reach the finish line much less winning the trophy. While the start is important, it is secondary in comparison to sustained progress and so, one can even recover from a large stumble as long as it doesn’t result in any physical injury.

Similarly, those who approach strategy execution as a sprint quickly burn out. They run the first few days, maybe even the first month or two, like a category 5 hurricane that seems unstoppable by their competitors. And yet, as time wears on, they lose their strength (stamina), well before the finish line. On the other hand, those who approach it as a marathon, though, they get off to a good start, and yet oftentimes fall far behind the sprinters. So, the question of the day is - how do we get to that optimum speed that helps us to win the race at all times? I guess the answer lies in Solomon’s words of wisdom within the context of the sprint-marathon metaphor –“run the business race like a marathon, yet sprint up, once in a while as needed-as per the seasons – and, then scale back after the sprinting season is over”.

This does not mean that we have to be wiggling like worms for every environmental change -on the contrary, we need to be steady and manage the execution speed (or momentum) by proactively choosing the optimum speed, as per the seasons of business realities. The optimum speed is what going to help us to transcend over the minor changes of the environment – thus, giving us the control over the future ( i.e. leading to superior results) vs. letting the environment controlling our future without our proactive intervention. That being said, we cannot, however, blindly ignore the seasonal challenges as well- as adjustments (like speeding up once in a while like a sprint) are absolutely needed to react appropriately to the seasons (e.g. missing a quarter numbers). Without such minor adjustments, our strategies can quickly become irrelevant to the moment and actually end up hurting our long term success.

In the final analysis - it is a balancing act -and so depending upon the seasons- we need to pick and choose the optimum speed (as a sprint or marathon) as needed by the business realities of the seasons to sustain the momentum for the long haul. Without such speed, we might even miss the mark on some business situations – and likewise, with too much speed, we might even lose the stamina (needed for the long haul) - and so “doing both” is the way to go when it comes to strategic planning in the words of Inder Sidhu and Roger Martin. To get to that “doing both” mindset within the strategic planning process – like most things in this world – we need to adhere to certain principles to help arrive at that optimum speed.

Marathon principles

  • Principle of "high energy" – Addressing “who we are” question in terms of forming the “spirit-soul-body” balanced high energy team – or hire the right people who can execute with high energy for the long haul.
  • Principle of "sustainment" – Addressing the "why do we exist" question in terms of sustainment based purpose dimension.
  • Principle of "endurance" – Addressing “where to play” question in terms of overcoming the early painful situations (i.e. anything is worth chasing after it creates some pain) or chasing the right market track/geography.
  • Principle of “never giving up” – Addressing “what to play” question by overcoming the early brick walls with “never giving up” type differentiation and exploitation strategies.
  • Principle of "dream" – Addressing “how do we win” question by “keeping the dream of finish line in mind” or with top line focused big bet ideas.

Sprint Principles

  • Principle of "unstoppable force" – Addressing “who we are” question in terms of forming the team with a good mix of "skill, talent and giftings" who can execute with a great force for a higher first mover advantage or business impact.
  • Principle of "early start" – Addressing the "why do we exist" question in terms of hitting the quarterly profit numbers quickly.
  • Principle of "focus" – Addressing “where to play” question in terms of being laser focused with the right set of product and services categories.
  • Principle of "finish" – Addressing “What to play” question in terms of “getting to the finish line” quickly mentality.
  • Principle of "trophy" - Addressing “How do we win” question in terms of “keeping the trophy in mind” type bottom line focused operational excellence ideas.

Bottom line: As we can recognize from this set of marathon-sprint balanced principles, it is clearly evident that “there is no silver bullet” -especially when it comes to arriving at the optimum speed using these marathon-sprint balanced principles - and so, it is all the more important for organizations to properly balance these principles with a “doing both” mindset. In addition, augmenting these principles with the right set of accountability/governance processes will not only make our organizations a best in class in our industry vertical in terms of exceeding the profit numbers, but also, make them the purpose leaders for the long haul.


  1. Hello Charles,

    You know each time you surprise me with your metaphors and their relevance. This post is on the same creative line>
    I wonder if it is the opposite attributes (fastness vs. slowness) balancing or something else like good luck that makes us successful. With so many balancing efforts requires I tend to go back to an earlier post by you on which eagles reach a point where they may fly effortlessly. Likewise; I feel successful companies are those who harmonize with their environment to take some "free rest" along the way.

    It is mind boggling! Thanks, Charles for sharing your bright thoughts

  2. Good observation and a great follow-up question Ali. The answer, I guess is- perhaps balancing them of all – i.e. balancing all the opposites of different dimensions (speed, energy, ideology, qualitative vs. quantitative, left vs. right brain etc.etc.etc.) is what eventually would help us to reach the final balancing stage – i.e. soaring like eagles (or effortless flying stage). To get to that effortless flying state- the prerequisite in my mind is balancing first in all of the earlier dimensions.

    Balancing, although looks like a simple subject – in practice, the most difficult thing to do, and so, if all of us can master it, most of our world’s problems would go away- and it will take us to places where we have not dreamt before.
    As always – yet another insightful comment!

  3. Hello Charles,

    If we draw all opposites that we are aware of (and you have named quite few in your response )on a landscape we might even have more surprises. Some of these opposites might interact, feedback to each other and there might be a tipping point where the system might show unexpected performance. I wonder how intuitively the eagles do it.

    The problem is the fastness with which eagles adapt or equilibrate. This reminds me of Boyd's OODA Loops for pilots. A pilot must be ahead of hid adversary on the OODA Loop to win. We are talking about fraction of a second.

    Honestly, we might generate more questions to find out how little we know

  4. You bring up a great point Ali– The question however is (as you have asked)- What if - those seemingly opposing activities/concepts end up hurting each other, instead of benefiting each other? Until what tipping point “this balancing act or doing both” will bring benefit instead of hurt? Do we need to come up with some guidelines or criteria for “doing both” vs.” not “doing both”.

    Here is my hypothesis - While “balancing opposites” is the right thing to do in most business situations (especially when we have unconstrained levers available i.e. resources, time, talent/skills & few more), in some circumstances -we may have to accept the trade-offs (and not false trade-offs in the words of Inder Sidhu) – especially when we are constrained on levers. And, on that tipping point of constrained levers– balancing both perhaps might start hurting instead of benefiting.

    Granted, the tipping point will vary from organization to organization depending upon the weight factor (and also, where that opposites lie within the OODA loop continuum etc) , but again, knowing that tipping point in advance – will definitely help us to decide - until what point they can afford to “balance both” vs. start accepting trade-offs.

    Having said that – I kind of see that balancing the opposites can be done in multiple ways depending upon where we are within the continuum of the OODA loop as you have correctly alluded.

    - Balancing both opposites without any trade-offs.
    - Balancing both opposites with reasonable trade-offs. For example, one can do a full function Core option A along with a trimmed down Edge option B (i.e. functional trade-offs).
    - Leaning to one side at the expense of other by accepting 100% trade-offs.
    - Doing just one option not at the expense of other
    - Doing none.

    Yet another point about balancing these opposites is – the more the opposite lies closer to the ACT part of the OODA loop, the more it is difficult to balance. For example, within a business world – “opposing strategies” might be Ok whereas “opposing goals” might be a challenge as they create opposing objectives. These types of conflicting goals are difficult to fix as well, especially when some of those resource/event lever(s) happen beyond our control (or reaching the tipping point as I had alluded).With the tipping point for the goals occurring much earlier in the opportunity continuum than strategies - one can perhaps say opposing strategies are OK with respect to opposing goals. Following the same logic, opposing goals on some situations may be also OK compared to opposing visions as one can argue that opposing visions are the worst thing that can happen to a firm.

    Finally, as most things in this world – balancing opposites is also relative - they are OK depending upon where they are in the continuum. I would say this – as long as we are on the left hand side of the tipping point (with some buffer) “balancing both” of the seemingly opposing things are OK.

    Arriving at the tipping point is a different story - I guess it is both an art than science and so let us go back to Eagles again for some more inspiration!

    As always – you make me to stretch my thinking in all possible directions Ali.

  5. Hello Charles.

    Now, it is your turn to stretch my mind in different directions.
    Honestly, I find this dialogue very enriching and educational to ALL people.
    This time I have to read your great response three, four, times before taking pen to paper to respond.

    I loved your point on theory of constraints and also the one on conflicting goals.

    I feel I deprived you, Charles, of a post. Your response is worth a post on its own. I shall respond, but only after I digest your
    response carefully.

    Great response, Charles