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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.