Liliya Shobukhova won the 2011 Bank of America Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:18:20. (photo via Bank of America Chicago Marathon)

How many times have you been sitting in a business meeting and heard someone proclaim, “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon”? Several, right? Usually, most people in the meeting will nod in agreement, knowing that success will not come quickly but will require adequate planning and time for execution.

Of course, at one end of the table will be a disgruntled person urging the team to push forward faster to “leverage the white space opportunity” – or some other snappy catchphrase ripped from the pages of the management book du jour. Ultimately, whether the project sprints forward breathlessly or takes a more methodical pace depends largely on the status of that lone dissenter. If it’s a top executive, you had better tighten your laces and do some stretches, because the 100 meter dash is about it start!

But what if the project were both a marathon and a sprint? Could your business scale up rapidly to cover an initial surge, then ease off, grab a few recovery breaths, and sustain a solid pace for the full duration of time required to achieve your goals?

That exact scenario happened recently to a business that’s close to my heart: the Chicago Marathon, one of the largest, best-organized races in the world. I’ve run this marathon seven times and worked as a volunteer at it five more, so I have a pretty good understanding of what goes into putting it on.

If you’re thinking, “The Chicago Marathon? That’s not a ‘business,’ it’s just a race!” consider these facts:

  • Integrated marketing campaigns reach a target audience of several hundred thousand potential customers through email and direct mail; online, print, TV, radio and outdoor advertising; websites, blogs and social media; and point-of-purchase displays.
  • Co-marketing programs are managed with over 90 “business partners,” in this case, charities and other non-profit organizations.
  • Online ordering systems must handle a sudden influx of traffic (the 45,000 slots filled in just 6 days) and process secure electronic payments.
  • “Key influencers” (elite athletes) are courted, contracts negotiated, then travel, meals and media briefings are managed during their stay for the race.
  • 175 vendors create a combination “shopping mall” and education center in an expo hall that will be visited by 125,000 customers – in just two days.
  • A “village” capable of supporting all the runners and their supporters gets erected – and dismantled – within about 48 hours.
  • That village includes wireless and wired communications, food, beverage, tents, electricity, sound, lighting … and enough toilet facilities to accommodate 45,000 anxious, super-hydrated athletes.
  • Live television coverage – including from motorcycle-based film crews – is beamed around the world.
  • A computer network receives and processes input emanating from tracking devices attached to each runner. These feeds are recorded at half a dozen remote locations and fed in near real-time to a results database on the website as well as to mobile phones of spectators who sign up for updates.

Fortunately, most of our organizations don’t have such complex, time-sensitive yet transient demands. But we can all learn from the organization of the Chicago Marathon. Everything about the event is geared toward “leveraging white space opportunity” – providing an unparalleled experience that the participants will never forget.

Most of what the world sees or experiences is condensed into less than half a day of frenetic activity – sort of like “Black Friday,” but with more sweat. Yet the planning for that brief point in time runs throughout the year, proving even the final sprint is a marathon.

Many organizations, particularly technology companies, are now approaching projects in the “it’s a marathon and a sprint” manner. Using process methodologies such as “agile development,” they break down long marathon-like goals into shorter sprints so they can reach intermediate goals more quickly, then regroup and set their sights on the next milestone.

When running a marathon, it’s all about getting from one mile marker to the next, one by one. If you start out thinking, “I have to run 26 miles,” it can be overwhelming. It’s much easier to think about running just one mile – 26 times. Instead of one big payoff, you have 26 points of reward!

So the next time you are faced with the “is it a marathon or a sprint” quandary, understand that it may very well be both. Look for ways to approach it from the thoughtful marathoner’s viewpoint – plan for the long haul, but be prepared for a quick surge occasionally.