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Commentary & Analysis

Innovation: Easy to Talk About, Hard to Do

Who do we respect most in business? The individuals or companies who talk the best game or the individuals or companies who execute?

By Jennifer Matt
Published: August 17, 2012

Who do we respect most in business? The individuals or companies who talk the best game or the individuals or companies who execute?

Ironically, we give an exorbitant amount of attention to the talkers. Ideas are worshipped in our business culture. We believe the people who come up with the ideas are the best and the brightest; hence deserving of our adoration.

The print world is full of people who talk about ideas to drive innovation into the business of print in order to remain relevant. Talking is easy. Executing is hard and not nearly as sexy. Talking gets the center stage, the fancy PowerPoint slides describing total addressable market and CAGR, and the data from endless surveys about what everyone else thinks you should be doing. Executing is like herding cats – painstakingly managing your people, clients, technology to bring a new product offering to life one agonizing step at a time.

We have this collective delusion that “ideas” are what matter. If we just had some more of those “creative types” or we could afford to hire the hottest consultant, we would get tapped into the gospel of ideas and be saved. Ideas do sell but they don’t execute and execution is the only thing that impacts both the top and the bottom line.

Scott Belsky wrote an entire book about the topic, “Making Ideas Happen” where he specifically avoids the topic of “idea generation” because in his opinion, we are drowning in good ideas. Our collective batting average on execution wouldn’t keep us starting on the local little league team (my added commentary).

The irony of this misguided worship is that everyone has good ideas. Yes, everyone. The real genius is in the ability to execute on ideas. Most ideas never make it to the execution stage – they die in the excitement of the talk of potential and exuberance. We all love it, it’s addictive.

Real genius is taking a great idea or just a good one and executing on it, bringing it to market, building a business around it. Because if you have actually “shipped” as Seth Godin calls it or as Gus Tai, General Partner at Trinity Ventures says it so elegantly;“…delight customers, profitably, at scale…” then and only then do you actually know if the idea was good in the first place. A good idea is one that has been tested outside the theoretical discussion over a few beers. All ideas are brilliant (theoretically); the ideas that make it through the often grueling stages of execution deserve more respect. But I’m not here to talk about ideas; I’m here to point the spotlight on the execution part. The ugly underbelly which deserves way more respect and way more use of the term “genius” in my opinion.

Execution is hard. (period)

Distractions, competing priorities, an existing business to run, etc… these are all the things that get in the way of executing on a new idea. New means something that’s added to your already packed work schedule. New means that it competes with entrenched priorities. New can sometimes mean, “easy to rationalize putting off.” Executing on new ideas has an army of reasons why NOT to do it. As Scott Belsky says, “to a degree, the natural immune system that extinguishes new ideas in big companies is essential.” Because new is constantly being compared to current revenues, customers, products, and because it’s new, it never compares well.

In the past I’ve challenged my team to make major changes to an existing product while supporting the existing customer base and revenue stream. My product manager at the time said, “you’re asking us to change the tire of a car while driving it.” Surprisingly, it can be done. This is an apt analogy because embarking on any new idea has to take place while you’re minding your current business and it’s hard, arguably as hard as changing a tire while driving – just not as dangerous!

“The ideas that move industries forward are not the result of tremendous creative insight but rather of masterful stewardship.” – Scott Belsky, Making Ideas Happen

Of course this is where we look at the concept through the lens of the print industry and my favorite topic - the evolution of technology tools within it. If you read WhatTheyThink headlines everyday like I do, you can always find a press release stating the following, Printer X Bought Technology/Equipment X. We do press releases about purchases. The purchase is the idea. The implementation is the execution. I’m still waiting for the press release that says, “Printer X Bought Equipment X and Achieved Full ROI in Six Months! (that would be a press release worth reading). The buying part is easy. The masterful stewardship of the investment, that’s really hard.

What would it look like if we focused more on the execution and less on the ideas in the print industry?

  1. We would evaluate technology purchases based on our evaluation of the implementation and strategic services rather than the feature lists. My guess is that about 80% of technology features are never used, yet we base the majority of the purchasing decision on the feature list. My other guess is that about 80% of technology implementations suck, yet we don’t even evaluate the company’s ability to implement in the purchasing decision.
  2. We would elevate the idea of project management inside our organizations. Everything is a project. David Allen defines it as “anything that requires more than one task to complete.” We would define projects, we would clearly define the desired outcomes we are moving towards and then we would capture and track all the actions required to get us to the desired outcome. Sounds ridiculously simple and obvious but when it’s done right – its pure brilliance.
  3. We would elevate the conversation above the talkers and invite the people and companies who execute to lead the conversation. We would ask more questions like, “How does this example apply to me and my business?” or “How do you suggest we take this idea and execute on it?” We would call the talkers to the table and force them to think through the tedious execution details that stump us all. All of us have to get down in the weeds because ideas without roots in execution waste everyone’s time.

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” – Thomas Edison

I admit I’m a bit of an idea addict; it’s so compelling to just keep thinking of new things all the time. After reading Scott Belsky’s book, my focus is much more on the execution side of things – I have enough ideas to last several lifetimes. It’s time to make a few of them real through masterful stewardship.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By Roy Grossman on Aug 16, 2012

This is among the very best pieces I have read in a long time. Great job.


By Ed Danielczyk on Aug 17, 2012

Bull's Eye!! Right on the money. Great ideas are very important for sustaining innovation and being innovative enables you to create competitive differentiators. However innovation without execution will lead to "What ever happen to that great idea about...." During the business strategy classes that I teach at a private college, it amazes me how little consideration is given by the student on the execution side of the equation. Fantasy is always much more fun than reality. Thanks for taking off the rose color glasses for many of us.



By Jerry Scher on Aug 17, 2012

Jennifer - Right on!


By Chuck Gehman on Aug 17, 2012

I agree with Roy, and I think it's one of your best, too Jen! Congrats.

This definitely hits home for me, in fact here at Mimeo we try to remind ourselves of this every day.

Ironically, though, you are probably in the 2% of the printing industry who are innovating.

The rest of this industry is actually way too focused on execution already, and does not have new ideas. Sadly, because the good execution of the old ideas is not working for so many.


By Jennifer Matt on Aug 17, 2012


I agree with Chuck (I don't say that very often ;-) - - - Executing brilliantly on the wrong thing is a lack of leadership. Leaders have to decide the big directional decisions and then help execute on them. If you're executing brilliantly on old ideas - your leaders need to be voted off the island.

Leaders are constantly asking, "what is our desired result?" and simply "why?" are we doing this?

One other thing that is so prevalent - reactive workflow, we just sit down at our computers or go into the print plant and spend the entire day reacting to what comes at us (e-mail, production issues, phone calls, etc.) We let the interruptions prioritize for us. All of us have enough coming at us everyday to simply be in reactionary mode all the time. I would argue that social media exacerbates this by driving us further to disruption.



By Duane Pogue on Aug 17, 2012

I agree with Roy. Great piece!!


By rick ciordia on Aug 17, 2012

A very interesting and compelling article. As a salesperson it is my responsibility to sell solutions geared toward the application challenges for any particular prospect and their project(s). Anyone can spew out specifications, heck, that's why many prospects head to the internet before they discuss their challenges with a knowledgeable sales person.
But as pointed out in this article, each company must have a fairly clear understanding as to how to implement solutions for their companies based on goals, budgets and other items.
Interestingly enough, many manufacturers have done this!! They have developed equipment based on market trends, future changes in the industry, niches, and other factors relevant to it's position in the industry.
This is why there are some excellent choices in modern print equipment available today.
In order for a solution to work to its maximum potential, each company must understand to the best of it's ability what they must do to execute the solution.
Profitable companies understand and do this quite well.


By Jennifer Matt on Aug 17, 2012

Rick - My guess is that you are a very successful sales person because you think beyond the sale/commission to the reality when your prospect turns into a customer.

We have to sell the solution (the desired result) because that is the compelling story that forces people to change. Sales is all optimism because it has to be. Human nature doesn't want change - we have to be sold on it.

When a prospect becomes a customer then the real work begins. It is such a contrast, I think this is why we have pure sales resources and pure operational resources. Not many people can play on both sides of this fence (optimistic vision of what the future can be) AND reality based vision of what it will take to get there. We are really defining two different personality types.

Sounds like have just enough of both personality types to be successful with your prospects and your customers.



By Harvey Hirsch on Aug 17, 2012

Jenn, you have to put the dots together. As a creative content provider I used to go to my print providers with a request to sho me what they can do. And they showed me what their systems could do. When I pushed the envelope, most of them balked at having to get equipment to solve the problem so I got the equipment myself. Roy is half-way there in saying that everybody has ideas but innovation is tough to follow up production wise. When you finally crack the production problem on innovation, the next problem is pitching clients to try it. After they do,and if they like the results, you need to develop the business model that will guides the industry in offering your innovation. Printers, however, execute your creative project, because creative content usually eludes them in their new business pitches, relegating them to pass along an equipment and facilities list. Ho hum.


By Erik Nikkanen on Aug 17, 2012

Jennifer, I think your work is great but this article gives me mixed feelings.

It suggests to me that the view is that there are a lot of good ideas that if managed properly and executed properly, will lead to positive results. This is much too simple and mostly wrong.

There are a lot of good ideas but many will not be workable. They are still good in that they can be interesting and generate more questions. What is needed is good thinking which is a process to develop valid knowledge which then can be used to innovate a desired outcome.

Innovation is too broad a term. It can range from simply developing some new idea that has a predictable outcome to combining known concepts in a new way or to developing innovation based on breakthrough thinking.

In the simplest forms of innovation above, basically one is managing a project and in those cases your comments fit well. As the level of innovation gets more complicated, different approaches are needed.

At the higher levels, one wants to develop teams of qualified people and let them alone with little stewardship. The goal there is to develop an environment where they can work without fear and with support. It is a different set of stewardship skills.

It is almost pointless to discuss any higher level of innovation within the printing industry. The skillsets and knowledge to do that kind of work is not there.

Most likely, most of the major innovation that will be used by the printing industry will be developed by those outside the industry.

That still leaves printers with the role of buying technology and executing the use of that technology but I would not call that innovation.

As humans, we all have problems filtering out the potentially good ideas from the ones that will not work. Even innovators have this problem and in hindsight will wonder why they took one path instead of another.

I do agree that things are easy to talk about but hard to do.


By Mark Sarpa on Aug 17, 2012

Jennifer, thanks for throwing us "talkers" under the bus.

As usual you are right on with your comments and I will strive to execute more. Thanks for the article.


By Jennifer Matt on Aug 17, 2012


Thanks for your feedback. In a 1500 word article you can't cover all the topics around innovation. We could cover all the angles in a more extensive paper, book, dissertation.

My point was that we have a lot of ideas that are never tested b/c we don't actually execute on them. We constantly seek out new ideas before we've executed on the ones we have. In this brief article I was proposing that maybe we should swing the pendulum a bit back towards the execution side of things?

I disagree with the statement, "It is almost pointless to discuss any higher level of innovation within the printing industry." The skillsets and knowledge to do that kins of work is not there."

I don't do surveys, I don't have access to a lot of data but I personally know a lot of people in this industry with plenty of skills and knowledge to innovate. I'm also a supreme optimist about human potential in general - most people are operating well below their capacity but have the inherent talent to shine.

The biggest limiting factor to print innovation is believing the premise that we can't do it!

We underestimate people without walking in their shoes. The print industry is gigantic, we are struggling to attract new talent but there is still plenty of talent around.



By Jennifer Matt on Aug 17, 2012


I'm an idea addict and a BIG TALKER - I'm under the bus with you!



By Erik Nikkanen on Aug 17, 2012

Jennifer, it is good you have such faith in the innovative abilities of people in the printing industry, although IMO your comments sound more like a pep talk and wishful thinking than anything based on the actual situation. Sounds more like "consultant speak".

As they say, talk is cheap. Let's see what they can do.

I look forward to the positive results you expect to see in the future. I will be happy to be surprised.


By Wayne Lynn on Aug 18, 2012

It looks like you struck a couple of nerves and that's a really good thing. There is a lot of talent in this industry. Frankly, when you look at the probability that only about 25% of the firms we had operating in 1997 will still be around in 2020, most of the survivors will have been innovators to a significant degree. How about that for a point of view?!!

Wayne Lynn


By Erik Nikkanen on Aug 18, 2012

Wayne, survivors don't necessarily have to be innovators. They can just be a bit less worse than their competitors that failed.

In fact it could be possible that innovators were amongst the failed companies due to not fully being successful at innovation.

In these difficult time, my view is that many companies have been on a knife edge. If they don't invest, they can fall behind but if they over invest they can run out of money. Trying to innovate is a form of investment but it does not always pay off in time.

Survival by attrition is not the same as survival by innovation.


By Wayne Lynn on Aug 19, 2012


I get the feeling you are thinking mostly about the innovation that comes from creating or applying technology. Innovation is involved in re-inventing your business model also. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the majority of the ultimate survivors will have developed a business model that looks quite different from the one they had in, let's say, 2000 or 2005. Also, the difference in business performance between the profit leaders and the laggards is stark. The argument that the survivors might be a little less bad is off the mark for the majority of those who will survive.



By Mariah Burton Nelson on Aug 20, 2012

Hi Jennifer,

Thanks for the thoughtful article. How about executing in innovative ways? That may be the bridge between two concepts: execution is hard and innovation is essential.

Here at ASAE (we're not a printing company - we're an association for associations, and we have some members who run printing associations), we're engaged in a PROCESS innovation to create, then execute a new product development framework, which will help us evaluate which of many "good ideas" we do want to implement, rather than overwhelming ourselves by trying to implement too many ideas (good or otherwise) without proper initial analysis.

Perhaps of interest: A recent article I wrote describes this "innovation in plain sight":



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