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5 Tips That Government Innovators Can Learn from Marathoners

Ways to conserve your energy on the long road to getting new ideas implemented.

If you’re running a marathon, you don’t want to run your first mile in six minutes — unless you’re a professional. If you start off too fast, you likely won’t finish, or you’ll be running 15-minute miles by the end.

The same is true in government.

In Gov2020, I usually write about the push for government to try new ways to serve citizens and bring innovation into the world, which I firmly believe in. Lately, however, I’ve noticed a tacit trend when talking to government innovators.  

They are starting to burn out.  

As an innovator, it can be difficult when you often run into brick walls or must pull off Herculean tasks to get the job done. And when you have a new idea, it’s always, “There goes Bob with another one of his crazy ideas — what is it this time?”

Much like a world-class marathoner, speed is important and coveted in bringing ideas and change to government. But you must pace yourself. Just as a marathoner needs water, food and lots of training, you need to make sure you maintain your energy.

Here are five tips to maintain your energy and stamina as you attempt to improve government:

1 / Find a good running pack — If you’re training for a race, it helps to have a training group that runs at your speed and provides support. If you are running fast in government innovation, you need the same. Find like-minded individuals to share your lessons learned, motivate one another to keep running when tired and pick each other up.

2 / Pick your battles — If you’re fighting every battle, you aren’t going to win any of them. Save your energy to combat the really important problems. If you always try to make change on every problem, your impact is less and you’ll have less energy to win when it really matters.

3 / Take breaks — In today’s always-on world, there’s always another project to work on, an extra group to join and social media to engage in. But just as your body needs time to heal after a long race, your mind needs breaks to rejuvenate. Be sure to take weekly and yearly breaks. Not only do breaks refresh you, they expose you to nonwork activities that help you formulate new ideas.

4 / Know when to move on —
Start-up companies have great idea people and entrepreneurs who are good from an idea’s beginning to its execution. But often these people get bored when the organization and product scales. The same may be true with you. As an innovator, your sweet spot may be getting new ideas off the ground, but you aren’t up to spending 10 years going all the way. That’s fine — know your personality. And when something new excites you, it may be time to try that.

5 / Be realistic — Let’s face it, you aren’t going to run a two-and-a-half-hour marathon unless you have amazing genes and devote all of your time to training. It’s important to be realistic in government as well. As mentioned in William J. Wilson’s book Bureaucracy, government bureaucracy often is slow for very good reasons. There are processes, sign offs, permits and hurdles for most important projects to get through. You can try to rush them, but be realistic about the pace — sometimes rushing hurts you later.

Maintaining your personal energy is an important lesson for any government innovator. Making change in government is an important, honorable and difficult task, and you need the same patience and training that it takes to run a marathon. Make sure you don’t start out at five-minute miles and quit after burning out. Run a fast, steady pace and win the marathon in style.  


Steve Ressler is a serial gov tech entrepreneur and investor. He has held leadership roles at companies including Callyo, GovDelivery/Granicus and GovLoop.