20 Mile March

The 20 Mile March is a concept developed in the book Great by Choice. Enterprises that prevail in turbulence self-impose a rigorous performance mark to hit with great consistency—like hiking across the United States by marching at least 20 miles a day, every day. The march imposes order amidst disorder, discipline amidst chaos, and consistency amidst uncertainty. The 20 Mile March works only if you actually hit your march year after year; if you set a 20 Mile March and then fail to achieve it, you may well get crushed by events.
Excerpts from Great by Choice

Imagine you’re standing with your feet in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego, California, looking inland. You’re about to embark on a three-thousand-mile walk, from San Diego to the tip of Maine. On the first day, you march 20 miles, making it out of town. On the second day, you march 20 miles. And again, on the third day, you march 20 miles, heading into the heat of the desert. It’s hot, more than a hundred degrees, and you want to rest in the cool of your tent. But you don’t. You get up and you march 20 miles. You keep the pace, 20 miles a day.

Then the weather cools, and you’re in comfortable conditions with the wind at your back, and you could go much farther. But you hold back, modulating your effort. You stick with your 20 miles. Then you reach the Colorado high mountains and get hit by snow, wind, and temperatures below zero—and all you want to do is stay in your tent. But you get up. You get dressed. You march your 20 miles. You keep up the effort—20 miles, 20 miles, 20 miles—then you cross into the plains, and it’s glorious springtime, and you can go 40 or 50 miles in a day. But you don’t. You sustain your pace, marching 20 miles. And eventually, you get to Maine.

Now, imagine another person who starts out with you on the same day in San Diego. He gets all excited by the journey and logs 40 miles the first day. Exhausted from his first gigantic day, he wakes up to hundred-degree temperatures. He decides to hang out until the weather cools, thinking, “I’ll make it up when conditions improve.” He maintains this pattern—big days with good conditions, whining and waiting in his tent on bad days—as he moves across the western United States. Just before the Colorado high mountains, he gets a spate of great weather and he goes all out, logging 40-to 50-mile days to make up lost ground. But then he hits a huge winter storm when utterly exhausted. It nearly kills him and he hunkers down in his tent, waiting for spring. When spring finally comes, he emerges, weakened, and stumbles off toward Maine. By the time he enters Kansas City, you, with your relentless 20 mile march, have already reached the tip of Maine. You win, by a huge margin.

Some people believe that a world characterized by radical change and disruptive forces no longer favors those who engage in consistent 20 Mile Marching. Yet the great irony is that when we examined just this type of out-of-control, fast-paced environment, we found that every 10X company exemplified the 20 Mile March principle during the era we studied.

Now, you might be wondering, “But wait a minute! You’re confusing things here. Perhaps 10X companies could afford to behave this way because they were so successful and dominant. Perhaps 20 Mile Marching is a result of success, a luxury of success, not a driver of success.” But the evidence shows the 10X companies embraced a 20 Mile March early, long before they were big companies. Furthermore, every comparison company failed to 20 Mile March with anything close to the consistency shown by the 10X cases. In fact, this is one of the strongest contrasts in our study.

Having a clear 20 Mile March focuses the mind; because everyone on the team knows the markers and their importance, they can stay on track. Financial markets are out of your control. Customers are out of your control. Earthquakes are out of your control. Global competition is out of your control. Technological change is out of your control. Most everything is ultimately out of your control. But when you 20 Mile March, you have a tangible point of focus that keeps you and your team moving forward, despite confusion, uncertainty, and even chaos.