Sunday, May 17, 2009

Marathon Motivation

I ran a marathon this morning for the sixth time in as many years. As late as the halfway point I had my doubts about whether I would make it to the finish line, but I kept going and, in the end, got there almost the way I had planned it.

A marathon packs a full day’s work into a Sunday morning, and some employers must wonder how they might get workers to put the same effort and determination into an ordinary day of work. But employers will never be able to do this, and the reason is simple: there is no finish line in business. Managers are always moving the finish line, and in the rare instance that a worker makes it to the finish line before the employer gets a chance to move it, the response is not a medal, but a list of things that could have been done better.

The result is that employees can never approach any business goal with the same confidence with which they approach the finish line of a race. I saw this effect in the race today, when I saw a runner who was suddenly not sure he was going in the right direction on the complicated marathon course. He decided to keep going that way, but I saw him slow down by at least 10 percent over the next several blocks until it was confirmed that we were all still on the official course. When people don’t know whether they’re going toward the finish, it’s just impossible to go all out. Even if they decide to they can’t really do it.

The finish line of a marathon is announced long in advance, and once the race is started, it can’t be moved. By contrast, business leaders and managers are constantly moving the finish line of everything they want to accomplish. They can’t help themselves. It’s the nature of someone who wants to run a business to want to make things better all the time.

The secret of transferring marathon motivation to business is as simple as it is impracticable: persuade the business managers to stay out of the way. That means letting workers accomplish things outside the usual chain of management control. Lots of businesses claim to encourage this, but when push comes to shove, they decide they really do want the managers in charge of everything.