The fat man and the marathon

The fat man and the marathon

In the early 1990's my wife Jo and I had the opportunity to live in Atlanta Georgia. While we were there my wife decided to run the Peachtree Road Race. The race is a prestigious 10 kilometre event and one of the largest fun runs in the US with over 85,000 people participating each year. As Jo told me about the race, I became enthused and decided to enter and do the run with her.

Several weeks later, I decided it might be a good idea to work out if I could actually run 10 kilometres so I put on my shoes and headed out.

In hindsight that wasn't such a smart decision and about a week later when I had fully recovered and could walk properly again, I began to consider alternatives because it was clear to me that I couldn't just put on my running shoes and expect to successfully complete the race. So what to do?

Being in America we lived in an apartment complex that had a small gym with a personal trainer attached. I decided to pay a visit to this personal trainer and seek her advice on what I should be doing. I explained the situation to her including setting out my goal of completing the Peachtree race and getting the prized t-shirt.

While she was very nice and professional about it, her sage and considered advice went along the lines of "put down the TV remote control you lazy %$#& and go out for a walk!" Which I did.

After a week or two she encouraged me to begin jogging between the occasional power pole and this process continued slowly week by week until I found that I was jogging for half an hour and so on until I was ready for the big race day.

When the race day came Jo and I lined up nervously on the start line waiting for our wave, the last wave to be released and begin our race. The moment came and we were off, not so much off at a canter but more a crush as the best we could do is walk across the start line with the other 5000 or so starters in our group.

As we walked across the start line I reflected on the training I had done and the progress I had made to be able to complete the race.

As I was pondering this, the race officials announced the winners of all the grades for the race. This jolted me back to reality. As proud as I was of my efforts to get to the start line, the race had been won and I hadn't even begun.

I did successfully complete the 10 kilometres, a very proud moment for me. Jo and I continued to train and subsequently completed the Atlanta half marathon on what was ultimately to become the Olympic marathon course.

Many years later I was sitting in the office of a senior executive who was wondering out loud (perhaps it would be more correct to say moaning) why it was so hard to implement best practice in his organisation. He just couldn't get the changes to stick.

As we discussed this problem my experience at the Peachtree Road Race came back to me and before I could stop myself I said ".... how do you get a fat man to run a marathon?" This certainly stopped the conversation, he looked confused and shrugged his shoulders.

I recounted my experience for him and in particular my experience with the first failed run. "Having a fat man implement the training regime of a marathon runner is the same as trying to implement best practice in an organisation that isn't ready for it. It will do no good and is likely to actually cause significant harm and pain."

He got the metaphor and from there we teased out an approach to organisational change that started metaphorically with going for a walk and then jogging between power poles, etc, until we were fit and ready for our organisational marathon.

I have used this story many times since this meeting as a reminder to myself and others that if you are not ready for best practice, then best practices can be destructive, not helpful.

Rather, we need to focus on next practice, which may be going for an "organisational walk", which is the next thing we need to do to build capability over time. Continuing to focus on next practice, we can build our capability to the point where we can successfully implement best practice and run our marathon.

Owen McCall is director of Viewfield Consulting and a member of CIO New Zealand's editorial advisory board ( He can be reached through and through his blog at

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