Thursday, January 29, 2009

Leading Change: Remember the Marathon Model

The Marathon Model is from William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, Making the Most of Change.

The model gets its name from the experience you might see in a road race with thousands of runners. (The last Corporate Challenge I participated in had over 10,000 runners and walkers!) The faster runners (the 5 minute milers) line up at the starting line, and the rest of the runners are spread out for many blocks behind them, with the causal walkers as the end. As the starting gun goes off, the fastest runners begin. As these first runners take off, those behind them can start moving up to the ‘official starting line’ and begin their race, although at a different starting time than the first runners. As this next group moves off the starting line, another group of runners approaches the ‘official starting line’ and begin their race, and so on. While all of this moving and lining up is happening, the runners in the far back of the pack are not moving at all. There is little room to start shuffling their feet, and they probably did not even hear the starting gun because of how far back in the pack they are and because of all the surrounding noise. They eventually get to the ‘official starting line’ but much time has elapsed between now and when the first runners took off.

This model makes an easy analogy to an organization going through change. The senior leaders of the organization who have been working on the change have had a chance to think through the change, talk about it, and get used to it. These leaders typically go through their transitions before they launch the changes, while they’re still struggling with the problems and searching for solutions. By the time they have announced the change, they have long since put their personal losses and the transition stages behind them and are ready for the new beginning. The next level of managers are probably just entering the transition stage, and the rest of the rank and file have not yet even made their endings.

It is important for leaders of organizations going through change to realize the ‘lag time’ between where they are in the process and where others in the organizations are in the process.

The higher a leader sits in an organization the more quickly he or she tends to move through the change process. Because they can see the intended destination before others even know the race has begun, senior managers can forget that others will take longer to make the transition: letting go of old ways, moving through the neutral zone, and, finally, making a new beginning.

Keep the marathon model in mind when planning and implementing your next change. While you’re in the tent having a nice cold refreshment, there are many others who have not even crossed the starting line yet. Have patience and allow the walkers to complete the same race you did.


Anonymous said...

One of the biggest problems with this is that the senior leaders get started, get used to the change, and *reduce all the terms to acronyms.* By the time they are ready to communicate to the levels below, it's the FDT of the PDG and CVW for everyone. When the team says "Huh??" the lack of enthusiastic support is attributed to fear of change.

Pawel Brodzinski said...

That's why it's so important to bring honest and clear sommunication about the change to the whole company as soon as possible.

When I see senior executives who are talking about changes which are to happen and they can't answer basic questions asked by their audience I'm sick. They see only a big picture and sell a lot of blah-blah instead of delivering clear message.

It's like not telling people how road race is organized and letting them to figure out by themselves. I bet many of them will start with a big lag because of lack of information.

Dan McCarthy said...

Anon, Pawel, -
right, and that's when we roll out the "Overcoming Resistance to Change" programs..., or hand out a bunch of those little booklets on how to get over having your cheese moved.

Anonymous said...

This can really be boiled down to two words: effective communication. This must take place across all levels of the organization, and as quickly as possible. The longer questions remain unanswered, the more assumption creeps in. The Exec’s don’t have to have all of the answers, but they can’t hide in their offices either. When in doubt, communicate!


creativeenergyblog said...

Dan - great post as always.

Indeed, communication is important...especially when things are rough or there have been layoffs. What I think the marathon model does is offer a way to make sure that communication is accomplished with the right attitude and outlook.

Before a manager, exec or leader can convey a message, it is important to understand to the best of his ability where the other person is. The willingness to do this is a powerful tool in leadership.

Thanks for bringing up this perspective.

As a marathoner who once started way too far back, I can appreciate the metaphor.

- Jeremy

Dan McCarthy said...

Jeremy -
Well said!
BTW, your blog is looking good, I just subscribed and will add you to my roll.