Strategy is not an Endurance Sport

The number of people doing long cardio workouts with a goal of losing weight and improving fitness is large indeed. You see them in the gym on machines. You see them running in Central Park. You encounter them in the streets of Denver and on Rocky Mountain trails. They are everywhere. Some are huffing and puffing as they propel themselves around a track, and others are on a runner’s high. Many push themselves beyond their threshold for discomfort to do an extra lap or extra mile. They often go into a trance-like state, becoming numb to what is around them and to what they are feeling inside, pushing through the exhaustion and pain. Others simply give up exercise entirely.

For some reason, chronic cardio has become our ideal of fitness. I have done cardio like this too, thinking it was beneficial only to discover later that the opposite is true. You see, it is not chronic cardio that helps you lose weight and get fit. Chronic cardio sends a signal to the brain to increase fat storage. After all, to the brain it looks like you’re going to need the fat later given all the cardio you are doing now. Chronic cardio also signals the body to consume muscle tissue for energy. The brain reasons that the body needs the fuel now, and the extra bulk of muscle only slows it down. Our bodies are not stupid. They can tell what’s up and they respond accordingly.

Many companies approach strategy like chronic cardio. Their managers endure long workshops to develop strategy. Then like preparing for a long distance race, they prepare to execute a strategy for at least a year before the next major review. I have witnessed the chronic cardio approach to strategy consume business muscle as managers attend endless meetings and reviews, and force staff to gather data for reporting of arcane KPIs. In the same way that chronic cardio signals the body to store fat, I have seen some managers deliberately set targets they know they can exceed with ease, or mask achievements early in the year so they show a burst of achievement later on. Like our bodies, middle managers are not stupid. They know the score.

And then there is the trance-like state. Like marathoners who become numb to the world around them and their own discomfort, turning their bodies into running machines, I have watched managers go through the motions of a strategy set months previously, numb to developments in the business environment or to the havoc wreaked internally in the organization. Just staying the course, they endure until the finish of the cycle. Others simply abandon strategy altogether. Too hard. Too painful.

Humans are not built for chronic cardio. Our Paleolithic ancestors needed to walk over long distances and sprint every now and then in the face of danger. Only occasionally did they need to sustain a greater effort in chasing down a prey. Our bodies still benefit from mimicking these activities–regular low-intensity movement and occasional sprinting. In fact, occasional sprinting has been shown to improve endurance faster than endurance training. Less is often more.

So, I have dropped my chronic cardio for low-intensity walking, swimming and cycling, punctuated by sprints every three weeks or so. The result has been not only lower weight with increased muscle mass, but also fewer injuries, more awareness during workouts, better enjoyment, and most importantly, sustained physical activity.

Businesses have also begun to see the folly of the chronic cardio approach to strategy. Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ Bank’s executives are now looking at alternatives to the bank’s high-intensity balanced scorecard based strategy management approach. “It’s just too heavy and it’s not getting the results!” a manager in strategic planning complained.

I have helped client companies develop alternatives to chronic cardio approaches to strategy. What does that look like?

Regular, low-intensity strategy reviews with no more than three KPIs and short discussions and decisions on key issues, and strategy development sprints of no more than three hours punctuating the year.

The result?

Faster improvement in business results. More rapid adaptability and change. Better buy-in of the strategy. Better adherence and accountability. Sustainability.

And what about those times when a greater sustained strategy effort is needed?

Well, like the way regular low-intensity activity punctuated by occasional sprints prepares the body for endurance when needed, the low-intensity/sprint approach to strategy prepares an organization’s people for more intense strategy development and management efforts when necessary.

So whether you are doing chronic cardio in business or fitness, stop it! Go easy. Sprint periodically. You will be better off in both cases.