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5 Lessons on Change and Innovation from the 1967 Boston Marathon



Kathrine Switzer in the 1967 Boston Marathon. Photo Credit: Boston Herald

In 1967 KV Switzer signed up to run the Boston Marathon. Women were not permitted to run the marathon back then – deemed too fragile for the 26 miles. KV was Katherine Switzer, the only woman among the thousands of runners that day. She ran in the middle of the pack. An over- zealous official spotted her and tried to shove her out of the race. Her friend, Tom Miller pushed him out of the way. The rest was history. Switzer became the first woman ever to complete the Boston Marathon.

This is what happens in innovation and social change efforts. There’s KV as the dedicated change agent + the angry official as keeper of the past + Tom Miller as the protector of change agent + all the rest of the pack running along.

Donald Schon, a thought leader on learning, reflection and change, described this phenomenon of resisting change as the active fight to stay the same. Not passive. An active fight. People will take a run at you.

Here are my 5 reflections on these photos and what it takes to make positive change.

  1. Commit To What You Want To Do – Kathrine trained hard. She was thoroughly prepared to run the distance. She took no shortcuts. Change is the same. Do the prep work you need, to be ready for the long race ahead.
  2. Go Slow To Go Fast. Gain Momentum – Don’t bring a lot of attention to yourself at the outset. Lay low. Go slow. Hide in the pack. Learn and learn more. by doing good work. Use small experiments. Build momentum, then make your big move.
  3. Prepare To Get Blindsided – Just when you think you’re on a roll, someone will try to take you down. These are the traditionalists, the establishmentarians, the status quo lovers, threatened by you and what you stand for. They’re in our midst. They are you and me sometimes too. Have a plan.
  4. Make Sure You Have A Champion To Block For You – Find a strong champion who believes in you and has enough clout to hold off the shovers, so you can have enough time and space to figure things out and make your way through.
  5. Stay The Course. Keep The Long View – All worthwhile change is a long game. It took another 5 years to 1972, before women were permitted to enter the Boston Marathon. It was 12 more years to 1984, when the women’s marathon became an Olympic sport. By 2017, fifty years later, more women run the marathon in the US now, than men do.

Kathrine Switzer was an innovator. She embodied the essence of personal spirit – the right outlook, the courage to do what she wanted and the bold initiative to run where others had not run before. This year, she ran the 2017 Boston Marathon again.

How do you respond when someone comes up with a new idea, proposal or innovation that shakes up the status quo?

One Video: This ode to the ‘crazy ones’ from Apple and Steve Jobs, is a favourite of ours at OneSmartWorld.

One Book: Check out How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention, and Discovery by Kevin Ashton. His book is an excellent set of stories and lessons on perseverance and on what it takes to create new ways, new products and new practices in science, at work and in life.


Bob Wiele is the founder and president of OneSmartWorld, a business that empowers people and teams to get great results, by accelerating collaboration and innovation with a common language, a set of smart skills and practical tools. Bob’s team of associates and partners around the world offer training programs, certification and licensing in the 4D-i/4Dimensions Inventory, smarter meetings system, team building and the RIP IT/Rapid innovation process. Bob is married to Mandy St Germaine. They have five children and live in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada.


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