Marathon event or horse race


London has just hosted a marathon. Have you noticed what every runner does at the beginning? They start their watch.

During a marathon, every competitor monitors their own progress – minutes per mile, time at five miles, personal best. For the majority, where they finish in the field is of little interest; it’s your personal time that is important – each person performing against an individual target.

Paula Radcliffe has won the event three times:  in 2002, 2003 and 2005. Her 2003 winning time of 2:15:25 remains the world record twelve years later. This year, she joined the mass of runners.

We tend to refer to it as an “event” rather than a “race” because every single person has their own unique objectives. Apart from a very small number of competitors, the most important thing about the event is not the person who crosses the finishing line first, in the fastest time.

Women, men and wheelchair competitors compete on the same course. High profile professionals, like Paula Radcliffe, run with people who may only ever do one marathon – tens of thousands of personal aims that are unique but complementary.

Not only do runners have an objective of a time, but they also have an objective of raising money to improve the lives of other people.  And, finally, the people of London, Boston, Berlin, Tokyo and New York get a free spectacle, providing valuable support to the runners – an event of great collaborative purpose.

Horse race

Let’s make a contrast between a marathon event with a horse race. In a horse race, there is almost total focus on the horse that comes first. Little interest is shown in those finishing second or third. And, what are the rest called? Dismissed as “also-rans”.

Effective organisations

Some organisations are like a horse race – accolades given to a few high profile, senior performers while little acknowledgement is given to support staff.

The more effective organisations have an approach similar to a marathon – everybody has objectives to which they are committed and against which they can measure themselves.  And everybody relies on everybody else to help them achieve their aims.

The top sales person can only be effective if the receptionist is bright and cheerful, the packer gets the goods on the truck and the driver has a full tank of fuel. Here, numerous people with individual aims are all integrated within the wider purpose of the organisation. All people are treated with respect and their individual contributions acknowledged.

So, do you work in a horse race organisation – only one winner and everybody else  an “also ran”?  Or, is it more like a marathon event?

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