lone runner on side of highway passing mile 13 marker
PHOTO: Thomas Dils | unsplash

About 1.1 million runners — or roughly 0.01% of the world's population — complete a marathon every year, according to the International Institute for Race Medicine. In comparison, 70% of organizations have a digital transformation strategy or are working on one according to PTC.

Is it surprising that digital transformation is more popular than running 26.2 miles? Possibly? IDC projects that digitally transformed organizations will contribute to more than half of the gross global domestic product by 2023, accounting for $53.3 trillion. Marathon runners are likely only to support the Gatorade and GU industries.

Now, you may be wondering what marathon running has to do with digital transformation. Well, when you line up on the starting line to run 26.2 miles, you’re committed. That means the fewest number of runners quit at the beginning and the fewest quit at the end. Most runners quit around mile 20 or 21 — when they hit the wall, they’re exhausted, they hurt and they’ve gone so far, yet still have farther to go. It seems like the race will never end and the battle is endless.

If you’re championing a digital transformation initiative, this is probably starting to sound familiar. You probably started out with a bang. You were going to change the way you interact with customers! Provide better service! Use data to make a difference! And then somewhere along the line, it changed. Maybe you hit the wall (of resistance from employees). Maybe you’re exhausted from explaining to your executive team of why manual, disconnected processes won’t get you where you want to be. Maybe you feel like you’ve been fighting an uphill battle against everyone — IT, Sales, Marketing, Finance — and you’re ready to throw in the towel.

Whether you marathon races or Netflix series, there are lessons we all can learn from marathon running that we can apply to digital transformation — from training and mindset to proper fueling.

You’ve Got to Train to Win

When you sign up for a marathon, you don’t just show up to the starting line and race 26.2 miles. You train — for months. You need to build the physical strength to stay on your feet for several hours, as well as the mental strength to persevere when every ounce of self-preservation you have is telling you to just quit already.

The same mentality applies to digital transformation. You can’t just dive in; you need to build your strength to have the best results.

  • Have a plan. According to the widely-cited stat from Deloitte, 70% of transformation efforts fail. Many things contribute to this, but one key factor is the lack of a plan. When you run a marathon, one of the first things you do is choose your training plan. There’s tons out there, ranging from gentle to extreme. And you need the same kind of training plan for your digital transformation. It’s easy to underestimate the complexity of transformation — it’s not a single project or goal, but an ongoing journey. Take the time to create a plan to address all the parts and pieces that will get you to the finish line.
  • Start at the beginning. How does a marathon start? With a single step. (To be more accurate, with your first short training run, but you get the point.) Digital transformation is the same. You need to start at the beginning. Remember that digital transformation isn’t an IT project that succeeds or fails based on technology. It’s an organization-wide effort that requires change across the enterprise to be successful. And that means you need to focus on executing against your plan, one step at a time.
  • Don’t forget rest days. The success of a marathon training plan hinges on cross-training and rest days. If you don’t take a break, your muscles can’t repair themselves and you’ll burn out. Digital transformation is the same. It’s easy to put your nose to the grindstone and go, but that’s just going to lead to exhausting yourself and your employees. Focus on employee experience and take the time to engage your employees so change is exciting, rather than a cold dictate. 

With the proper training, anyone can finish a marathon. The same mentality applies to digital transformation. If you prepare, you can successfully see your plan across the finish line.

Related Article: Digital Transformation Isn't Just a Technology Issue, It's a Business Issue

Digital Transformation: It’s All About the Mindset

When you decide to race 26.2 miles, at a certain point, you have to want it. You have to believe that you can do it, and once you have that belief, you can start.

It’s no surprise that people fear change. Humans crave stasis. It’s easier to stay on the couch than lace up your running shoes and get out the door. But innovation has never resulted from staying in the same place.

In other words, to (badly) paraphrase James Carville: “it’s the people, stupid.”

Gartner found that 42% of CEOs at companies undergoing digital transformations expect their firms to make deep culture changes. The transition to the digital workplace means embracing technology-driven innovation, creating a culture that is digital-first, and having structured digital adoption strategies. If your leaders can’t communicate and lead digitally, invest in the tools to help them get up to speed. Otherwise, you won’t get past the starting line.

Related Article: 5 Myths About Digital Transformation

The Proper Fueling Plan to Avoid Hitting the Digital Transformation Wall

Once you’ve started a marathon, you need to keep going. (Unless, like me in my first marathon, you plan to just lay down in the middle of the street at mile 20 and wait for a car to run you over.) How do you keep going? With the proper fueling strategy.

When you run a marathon, you either finish feeling great, like you could run another marathon with no problem, or you feel miserable — you “bonk.” And the difference between feeling great and bonking is all about your fueling strategy.

Driving digital transformation is the same. If you don’t have the proper planning, you’re likely to hit the wall and crawl to the finish line … or even worse, DNF (do not finish). So how do you nail down a fueling plan that’s best for you — and your digital transformation strategy?

  • View your strategy as a bank. Your strategic planning is your currency. You only have so much energy to withdraw at once. If you fuel, you can add to your account, but it takes time to convert that fuel into energy that you can withdraw. A plan is just that — a plan. Be flexible and iterative, and give yourself time to review both quantitative and qualitative data to see what’s working and what isn’t.
  • Test how you handle fuel. Some runners swear by GU and some by gummy bears. How do they find that out? Testing fuel out on practice runs. As you get started with your digital transformation plan, look for quick wins that will help you build confidence in your leadership — and show others the value of digital transformation to your organization and your customers.
  • Practice your fueling technique. That means you must be reasonable, start slow and pace yourself. You can’t immediately gulp a quart of Gatorade and hope for the best. Do you need one chew every mile? Practice makes perfect, for both fueling and digital transformation. As you review the results of your quick wins and your data, look at the results to see what needs to change. Do you need more training? Are you lacking system integration? Keep tweaking your quick win projects to nail down the best fit for your organization.

Fueling is individual, and so is digital transformation. What works for one organization and its customers won’t necessarily work for another. But when it does, much like fueling, it will change everything for the better.

In the end, digital transformation isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. And like any marathon, if you want to finish, you can’t lose sight of why you started. Keep your customers’ needs, your goals for improving their experience, front and center. With that as your North Star, you’ll reach the finish line for sure.