Obstacle course, sprint or marathon?

As the sun rises, Soldiers from Company F, 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, U.S. Division–Center, make their way through an obstacle course March 23. The second of eight events, the Soldiers were required to work together in order to complete all of the challenges.

I was re-reading Jack Stack’s ‘A Stake in the Outcome’ over the last couple of weeks and a comment he made about the nature of the business race we’re running really jumped out at me. Teams would probably associate their long-term goal, or BHAG as Jim Collins calls it, as a marathon; an event of known length. At the opposite end of the spectrum there’s the encouragement to sprint towards near-term goals, often with a Scrum or Agile approach as recommended by Jeff Sutherland. These have their place in the vernacular of business to engage a sense of challenge, competition and striving, and indeed I use these approaches with my own clients to galvanise their efforts towards their goals.

But what is the overall nature of driving a business? In truth, it is an obstacle race as Jack describes. There is no flat, straight 100m course to quickly traverse; perhaps a spectator will leap out, or a hurdle will be dragged onto the track, or a competitor will tackle you from behind. The beauty of this is that if you recognise and accept that you’re in an obstacle race, then your psychology is already set to the nature of the event. You know for certain that, having just overcome one obstacle, that another is just around the corner, and its nature may be uncertain. It’s all part of the grand adventure of growing a business … but it needs different people and preparation than a straight sprint, doesn’t it?