The marathon runner

wakiihuriLast week I met Douglas Wakiihuri for breakfast. He is a marathon runner who won his first world championship in Rome in 1987 at the age of 23. Thereafter followed a string of victories.

Someone at the breakfast table asked him how fast he runs the Marathon now, 25 years later. Wakiihuri said he runs at 2 hours and 17 minutes, and he do still run. Every day. He also runs the Sotokoto Half Marathon where he is the CEO. The organization represents the youth sports industry in Kenya by advancing and reinforcing human values in addition to actively participating in development, education and the development of leaders, through engagement in sport.

Someone then asked Mr. Wakiihuri if he thinks the two hour time limit for running a marathon can be breached. (1). He said yes, but that it would be the last symbolic barrier to be breached. The human body is not built to go much faster.

He also said that if a runner breaches the two hour limit, then he is done for life and can never run a race again as his body will never fully recover. He told us that as athletes push themselves to excel in a race they do harm to their body, and for a marathon runner to win a race usually means that he will not win again that year and he will have to start to build up his body again from a damaged state.

This made me think. How come that so few people in this world achieves something world class more than once? It happens so seldom that it can be attributed to random chance rather than talent.

breakthroughEinstein made his contribution to theoretical physics in his young years and never made any further major advancement, and so did Bohr. Most scientists make their major discovery in their young years. Most exceptionally successful and innovative business leaders starts to build their business at a young age.

Elsewhere on this blog we argue that new ideas are just old ideas combined in new ways and that creativity and successful innovation is enabled by the sum of experience. This seems to imply that people of older age and experience should excel better than young people. Is this a contradiction to the marathon runners experience that one can only make a major achievement once and that it most often happens in young age?

No, it is not. The differential here is major achievement. Breakthrough ideas are rare but leapfrog competition.

Innovation does tend to follow a fixed path of sequential improvement. But a linear approach to innovation doesn’t always work to help companies get ahead of competitors in the fast pace development of the digital age.

leapfrogEspecially in developing nations, where investment capital is scarce and markets are smaller, they do not have the luxury of innovating at every turn. Many businesses the world over face the same challenges. There simply is not enough cash to consistently deliver the next big thing. Many emerging market executives have found their key to success lies in a leap-frog approach to the next best thing and not the traditional linear model embraced by large multinational companies.

Take for example the telecommunications infrastructure in East Africa. As the economy has developed in strong economic growth, so has the telecoms market, which is led by mobile and broadband telephony, as opposed to fixed line implementations. The fixed line network was not there, and therefore Safaricom, Airtel, Orange and others have expanded at an exceptional pace and mobile money transfer services like M-pesa has exploded in usage.

In countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, consumers jumped from having no phone at all to adopting broadband and mobile technology. In other words, mobile and broadband penetration leap-frogged ahead of fixed lines.

In developing nations, ideas are big, even if access to deep pockets are not. Fast growing companies in developing nations do not have the time for incremental steps. Executives save time and financial resources by investing in innovation that will stand the test of time, as opposed to implementing incremental enhancements.

Therefore if you dear reader are in East Africa,  when the big idea comes, consider what you can do to take that innovation to the next level. Do a gut check and some quality research to make sure your innovation is built on technology and industry models that will not be obsolete in the near term.

I was demonstrated some examples of leapfrog ideas at Nailab in Nairobi last week. The ideas were not technologically advanced, but for the Kenyan society the adaption model and business value was. Such initiatives will be the foundation of new major corporations in the decade to come.

After the breakfast the marathon runner bid farewell and took off, running to the camp where he would continue to train youth, many kilometers outside the city.


The IAAF world record for men is 2:03:38, set by Patrick Makau of Kenya on September 25, 2011 at the Berlin Marathon.

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