Training for a Marathon Issue

Managing a marathon issue that drags on for years requires different, more disciplined skills than managing a crisis.Most issues management advice centers on dealing with crisis, but most issues drag on for years, requiring strategies for a marathon, not a sprint.

Training for a marathon involves training for different slices of the race. How you run the first five miles is a lot different than how you run the last five. There is a reason elite marathon runners include sprinting in their training regimen.

Translating that thought into the context of managing an issue means having a long-term objective, as well as shorter-term objectives. You also may need one or more crisis plans for that mid-race leg cramp.

Marathon issues management plans apply to long-term projects that take years to complete and to complex, contentious issues that take time to resolve, such as the struggle to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Protracted issues and long lead-time projects face many ups and downs, which can occur because of economic cycles or catalytic events. There also is give-and-take as each side unleashes its strategy, which calls for a response. Managing an issue in this environment demands more than an A to B plan.

While skilled individuals can often manage a flaring crisis, it takes a team to plan and execute a marathon issue plan. It also can take place over a number of years, which means team members along the way may have to be replaced.

In a crisis, activity is hectic and out of control. A marathon issue can have an irregular pace. Months can slip by without anything significant happening. Execution may subside during those down times, but not vigilance on the larger issue. Some team members can be diverted to other projects, but somebody has to mind the store to keep an eye on new developments, review plans to ensure they remain relevant and keep up a conversation with key stakeholders. 

Data collection and solid archiving assume greater importance so the project team retains its memory.

Research is critical. In a crisis, there often isn't time for a survey to assess the best message. That isn't true for issues that sprawl over time, where careful thought is needed on what to say, how to say and where to say it.