What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami is what he calls a “memoir of sorts.” It is an account of the doubts and insecurities that plagued him when he started out as a novelist, attributing his subsequent success as a writer to his passion for running. As I read it (and as a fellow runner), I saw many connections between the disciplines of running and social innovation.
There’s value in both disruptive and incremental innovation
A few years ago, barefoot running shoes took the running world by storm. They were a breakthrough for many runners: fewer injuries, lighter feet, easier packing. Such disruptive innovations are at the heart of social innovation—and we are constantly on the look out for them. Kenya’s mobile money product M-Pesa is a great example. It disrupted a nation’s incumbent financial services providers, sparked a range of new businesses and entrepreneurs, and brought financial services to millions of unbanked consumers. While M-Pesa and barefoot shoes target very different consumers, both are simple, affordable, and accessible innovations that caused consumers to reject the status quo and embrace a brave new world.
We love disruptive innovations. But Murakami reminds us that incremental change is important too: “Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself.”
Celebrating milestones to support the big vision
Runners frequently set long-term goals for themselves, such as entering races, but they also know that milestones matter. I like setting myself mid-run challenges—reaching the next tree before a car passes me or before the song on my iPod ends, overtaking a pedestrian before she turns the corner. These challenges are my play on fartlek (speed games); they help motivate me and stretch my limits.
Social innovators need milestones too. In 2007, my organization ARK Schools set a 10-year goal to establish a network of 50 primary and secondary schools, providing an excellent education to some of the UK’s most deprived inner-city communities. Today, with 27 schools, that target remains but is still some way off. As each new school opens or one more school achieves an “outstanding” rating, our team celebrates—much needed motivation to keep our focus on that long-term goal. As Murakami puts it: “One by one, I'll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long-distance runner.”
Competition makes us better
Many runners achieve their best run times during races—the buzz of a race-day morning, good cheer from spectators, being part of something more than the individual all feed into this. Murakami writes: “The best aspect of a marathon is the warmth of people's support. I feel happier every time I enter a marathon.”
Competition works. Social innovation competitions are increasingly abundant and, when executed well, can be powerful. The Gates Foundation’s recent competition to reinvent the toilet successfully unearthed low-tech and hi-tech ideas to provide better sanitation, giving much-needed profile and resources to one of the most unglamorous issues in global development. At the right moments, our competitive spirits propel us further and faster.
Changing course is hard but necessary
“Sandstorms change directions. You change direction too, but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn,” Murakami writes.
Most runners will mentally map out a run before they start. Many use apps to pre-calculate distance, time, and elevation. We do this because going off-course is hard. It counters our instincts and feels tiring; entering unknown territory can be alarming.
Good social innovators can deal with the unexpected. They embrace new opportunities and adapt fluidly to change. Organizations that fail to adapt quickly tend to chase their industry, rather than leading it. I have happy childhood memories of renting videos and DVDs from Blockbuster, the market-dominator of entertainment for teenage sleepover parties. But as Netflix started renting films by mail and through live streams, Blockbuster remained stationery; it failed to change, and by the end of this year every one of its 10,000 stores will have closed.
We must embrace failure and learn from it
As Murakami writes, “Nobody's going to win all the time. On the highway of life, you can't always be in the fast lane.”
I often fail as a runner. The races where the conditions are perfect yet I fail to do well. Those times I leave my flat and my legs will not run (not to mention the times when I fail to even leave the flat). I accept that on some days I exceed my expectations, on many more days I feel pretty average, and on others I disappoint myself.
Good social innovators know to embrace and reflect on their failures and use them to improve. It’s encouraging that despite fears of damaged reputation and donor reaction, there is increasing transparency about what has and has not worked. In 2012, The World Bank Innovation Lab, in collaboration with Google, launched a program to help governments prepare for disasters using Google’s Map Maker program. After widespread criticism from their partners about their use of Google’s closed-source platform, the Bank changed course and announced its commitment to open-source platforms. The team’s admission was refreshingly candid: The prospect of a venture with a big, sexy company like Google blinded them, and they did not read the small print.
It won’t happen without hard work
Mo Farah put his brilliant Olympic double gold medal down to “hard work and grafting.” Personally, the more I train, the faster and further I run. No matter how great an idea or innovation is, developing and executing that great idea takes tenacity, endurance, and hard work.
Murakami writes, “There are three reasons I failed: Not enough training. Not enough training. Not enough training.” In his book, he suggests that running provides the physical and mental stamina necessary to sustain life as a writer. He uses running as both a metaphor for the focus and endurance a writer needs and a means by which that writer can achieve them.
I don’t think anyone would doubt that social innovators need all the focus and endurance that they can find—in their work and beyond. “Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: That's the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.”