Why do businesses continually enter races they can't win?

What race can I win? The 'marathon' legs of the  Kalenjin

What race can I win? The 'marathon' legs of the Kalenjin

Last week both Dennis Kimetto and I were in Germany. I was there to conduct a Problem-Solving Leadership workshop, and Kimetto was there to run a marathon. And though my programme went well, it was Kimetto’s performance that made the newspapers. 

Dennis broke the marathon world record in Berlin by completing the course in 2:02:57, beating the previous record by almost 30 seconds.

This pace is the equivalent to running 100 metres in 17.4 seconds, a time comfortably within the range of most athletic club sprinters. Except, of course, Kimetto maintained this pace for the equivalent of 420 sprints without rest. A remarkable feat.

But remarkable feats in distance running are not uncommon within Kimetto’s, Kalenjin tribe of Kenya. Their five million members have won an incredible 40% of the major international distance races since 1980. 

Let’s put this into context: There are 17 American men in history who have run under 2:10 in the marathon. There were 32 Kalenjin men who did it in October 2011.

So while Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” might ring true with certain aspects of individual skill development, exploiting your genetic or cultural predilection for tasks, activities or competitions is the lower investment, higher return path to take.

The trend in running research suggests it is better to run with more emphasis on the toes, and to wear minimalist footwear. In contrast Kimetto has a pronounced heel strike and he wears cushioned shoes with a 10 mm from heel height to toe.  

So, even if the new wisdom is correct on the Savannah, they may not be right on the road, and Kimetto's talent overwhelms these minor factors. Being clear on context and capability is crucial. This is an important lesson for organisations.

As an athlete, you would assess the nature of your talent, its competitiveness at against others, and choose your event and the level of competitiveness of the race accordingly.

Yet, surprisingly, few businesses undertake a qualitative and quantitative assessment of their organisation before signing up for the big event. Some sprinting organisations perform admirably at the beginning of the 1500m, but end the race in the pack. Marathon runners clack each of the hurdles in the 200m, causing injury and rancour, but hack on through bloody-minded determination.

Clarity on your genetic disposition should be a pre-requisite to any generation strategy process. A little investment gives much pleasure and avoids tears. 

Is your organisation disposed to win a marathon or be first in the sprint? Find out by requesting your two minute audit tool, Show me the Culture™.