Life Lessons from the Road: Use Goals to Drive your Journey

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When it comes to major undertakings, we’re often told “It’s a journey, not a goal.” However, I’d argue that goals are vital to ensure that you make progress on your journey – and I’ve got the data to back this up!

Working in the corporate world, I’ve been on the receiving end of major change management transformations – and in several cases I’ve been partially responsible for inflicting them on sizable chunks of the workforce.

Studies suggests that up to 80% of organisational change initiatives fail. I contend that one of the major reasons for this dismal performance is that we place all the emphasis on the journey at the expense of the goals. Goals give impetus to the journey and without goals your journey is likely to result in aimless wandering in the wilderness.

Who better to highlight the impact of goals on performance than 20,000 Comrades runners!

Finishers per 15 minutes split. Click to expand.

The above graph, shaped in an interesting Christmas tree, pagoda pattern, plots the number of runner that crossed the Comrades 2019 finish line in 15-minute intervals. No surprises that the ‘love handles’ are the last 15 minutes before each medal cut-off.

More runners sneak in between 7:15 and 7:30 for a silver medal than in the preceding two hours. The pattern continues for every medal category all the way through to the final 12-hour Vic Lapham medal cut-off. Without fail, the final 15 minutes of each medal cut-off dominates the finisher number stats. It is quite incredible the effect that a small piece of metal (and the bragging rights that go with it) has on the Comrades runners.

Perhaps an even greater illustration of how goals impact performance was the introduction of the 10-hour Robert Mitshali (named after the first black runner to compete the Comrades) medal in 2019. The graph below, comparing the 2017 and 2019 “up” run finishers, illustrates the impact that the a new medal had on the Comrades field.

A comparison of the finishing times between the 2017 and 2019 Comrades ‘up’ runs. Click to expand.

The percentage of runners finishing in each 15-minutes segment is almost identical except for a few significant deviations. The biggest shift is that a significant portion of the field who usually finish in the last 30 minutes before the 11-hour bronze medal cut-off are now able to lift their performance to earn the new sub 10-hour medal.

As one of those runners, I can personally attest to the power of the medal. 2019 was my tenth Comrades. In all my previous runs, I’d never run a single step up Polly Shortts (the last and most famous of the big hills on the “up” run). I normally look forward to a nice long walk when I reach Pollies. However, in 2019 I managed to run the whole damn thing. Why? For a shiny new medal.

How can you can get a lazy, complacent ultra-marathon runner to run up Polly Shortts? Lure him with a new medal.

I think this says a lot about stretch goals and how to motivate your staff. Very often managers set stretch goals that are completely ridiculous. If you’d offered me a significant financial incentive to run a sub 7:30 silver medal time, sensible Stuart would know this is way beyond his reach and wouldn’t even try*. However, if you make stretch goals realistic you can get a lazy, complacent ultra-marathon runner like myself to run up Polly Shortts.

* They do say that “every man has his price” and for the Running Mann it would be a lifetime supply of free beer. If I was offered a lifetime supply of free beer to run a silver Comrades stupid Stuart would likely give it a shot and die trying. 

Now I am not saying that journeys are not important – but it is the goal that gets the potato off the couch. A significant portion of the Comrades field started their journey on the couch watching the ultimate human race live on television. They get inspired and think “I want to run the Comrades Marathon.” They pick it as a goal. The goal is what drives the change in behaviour, the journey is a natural by-product which results in a change in lifestyle.

It is the goal of crossing the finish line that keeps the Comrades runner moving forward, even when the body and brain says they’ve had enough. The journey is what they reminisce and talk about afterwards.

Getting to the start line of Comrades is both a journey and a goal.

The lines are blurred. Getting to the start line of Comrades is both a journey and a goal; getting to the finish line of Comrades is both a journey and goal; and before the last drop of sweat has dried after crossing the finish line at Comrades, most runners are already discussing new goals to continue their journey.

Perhaps the simplest way to explain the connection is that the journey is what you’ll tell your grandkids about in 40 years’ time, the goal is what gets you out of bed for a training run before dawn on a miserable winter’s morning. Without clear goals, you’re likely to hit the snooze button and there’ll be no good stories to tell your grandkids.

About to complete one more goal before planning the next step in the journey.
Other articles in the ‘Life Lessons From The Road‘ series

It’s a Jog, not a Sprint

Be Mindful of the Middle

More to follow!

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