CXO

Whip IT initiatives into shape by following the Couch to 5K model

Few IT and enterprise initiatives include clear and concise goals and specifics on how to achieve them. The Couch to 5K running app is an interesting example of how to do it right.

Image: iStock/wojciech_gajda

I've been running for almost eight years, and went from someone who hated running and had never run more than a mile, to someone who gets antsy after more than a few days without lacing up their running shoes and can comfortably run a half marathon.

Like many people, I had a desire to achieve some vague notion of "health" through running, but lacked the means to achieve that goal until I found the free Couch to 5K (C25K) running program. For the non-runners, a 5K is a five kilometer race (approximately 3.1 miles) and is a popular format that generally takes 20-30 minutes to complete. C25K prepares the non-running "couch potato" for a 5K in about nine weeks.

Fitness and running aspects aside, C25K is a model of a transformational initiative that's been successful around the world, and provides an instructive example of how to design your own transformational initiatives.

What's in a name?

The mere name of the program, Couch to 5K, is profound in that it articulates the starting point and objective of the program clearly and obviously, unlike most transformational initiatives. If a typical consultant or middle manager had been tasked with naming the program, we'd probably end up with meaningless words and numbers like "FAST FEET 2020" or "Project ABE: ACHIEVE! BELIEVE! EXCEED!"

While it may be fun to pretend to be a government operative or consumer product developer and create cute codenames, initiatives that don't convey any meaning are not helpful. How do you expect interested parties to remember that "Project Redwine" is your ERP modernization, and "APOLLO X" is an updated mobile app? Like Couch to 5K, your program should strive to have a name that clearly articulates what it's about and what it's meant to accomplish.

Clear objectives, yet room to maneuver

Couch to 5K nicely balances the objective of the program — to run a 5K — with the means to achieve that objective. While nine weeks of running workouts are provided, it is explicitly stated that runners should repeat any workouts they find difficult. When I first completed C25K, I took almost 12 weeks, in some cases repeating a workout several times before moving to the next one.

Deadlines and finish times are not arbitrary, but are based on the assumed capabilities of the "project team" (i.e., the runner), with some room to maneuver.

Simple, appropriate metrics

The workouts that make up C25K are surprisingly simple. All the workouts are between 20 and 30 minutes, and start by alternating running and walking. Your first few workouts are spent primarily walking, and you gradually increase the time you spend running until you're running a full 5K distance. You can very obviously see improvements in your abilities as the program progresses, as you're able to run longer each week.

As I've developed as a runner I've moved on to more advanced workouts and monitoring capabilities, and my workouts might be designed around more complex metrics like average heart rate and stress scores. However, introducing this level of complexity as I started running would have made the process overly complex and intimidating.

As you design the metrics for your initiatives, make sure you consider the maturity of your company and team. If you're entering a new market or product, seek the equivalent of a simple, readily measured metric that allows you to benchmark your improving "fitness." In this age of readily available data, it's tempting to grab dozens of metrics and spend hours poring over data.

Have an endgame

Many initiatives fall victim to scope expansion, adding and absorbing other initiatives or chasing the next shiny thing that's vaguely related to the project at hand. While there should always be room to maneuver, organizations tend to burn weeks analyzing, discussing, and estimating side projects that aren't relevant to the core initiative. Imagine attempting to use C25K to train for tennis or golf — it doesn't make sense to apply a running-focused initiative to very different disciplines, yet most companies do this on a daily basis.

Design your initiatives like C25K, with a reachable and obvious endgame. C25K doesn't attempt to encompass any and all athletic endeavors; rather, it prepares one for a 5K and then lets the athlete ultimately decide his or her next action. Some complete C25K and decide they've had enough of running, while others may embark on a running "career" that ultimately has them running marathons or competing in endurance events.

The bottom line

Follow this model, and design initiatives that start with focused, foundational efforts that have understandable metrics and a clear endgame. Once these foundational initiatives are completed, you'll find your organization "fitter" and with a better focus on what to pursue next, rather than making the typical organizational mistake of attempting the equivalent of "Couch to 100 mile ultramarathon in 18 weeks."

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About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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