“Ideas are a dime a dozen” and it’s usually coupled with the thought “it’s not about ideas, it’s about execution.”
If you do a Google search on those phrases you’ll find many current links to blogs, business articles, and famous quotes pages. At a recent innovation conference in Berlin (FEI 2011) I heard this thinking echoed in several speakers presentations. Patrick Lefler, clearly a bottom line guy, wrote this recent piece, which was posted on the Blogging Innovation site, but there are many others who’ve advocated this concept. I found posts going back to 2006 on this theme.
On one level, this is indisputable. There are indeed a lot of ideas out there swimming around looking for a home. We all have lots of ideas, well, many of us have lots of ideas. Execution is — absolutely — a big missing in many organizations, and, for many individuals (he who has 3 book projects on the five yard line nodding yes here). So, it’s quite true that some people, and some organizations, would be very well served to focus, big time, on execution. Fair enough.
It’s my belief that truly great ideas, those that have big impact, or are breakthrough concepts, are Not a dime a dozen. A truly great idea might be as rare as a four-leafed clover. There are many out there, but finding them? That’s the trick isn’t it. I’m writing a post about this because there is a real danger in accepting the notion that it’s all about execution. The danger is you’ll not do as good a job of idea generation as you should. People are fairly unskilled idea generators as it is, they don’t do it enough to become truly fluid. Organizations reflect this, and often execute ideas that are truly mediocre — because they have nothing else!
As someone who has facilitated quite a few brainstorming (aka ideation, aka idea generation) sessions, I find that it’s relatively easy to come up with incremental improvement ideas, and far more difficult to come up with breakthrough ideas. The new miniature version of a candy bar, easy. Cool new packaging, easy. New market leader, or new industry — Not So Easy. Breakthrough or disruptive ideas are simply not a dime a dozen.
For example, I have had dozens of ideas on how to promote my book (Jack’s Notebook — now available on Kindle!) and I’ve executed a few of them as well, and do I have a best seller? No. I can blame it on quality — but I have dozens of great reviews. I can blame it on budget — but I’ve seen those with smaller budgets do better. And, I can blame it on a lack of truly creative marketing, or stated another way, lack of a breakthrough marketing idea. So, for this challenge, for me, it’s not about execution, it’s about the idea.
Drug companies work for years to find a new compound that will cure some ill and then put it through years of expensive clinical trials, and still, often fail. Where were all those ideas that simply needed executed? They wish ideas were a dime a dozen! A truly good product idea would have succeeded. They didn’t fail on execution, they failed by not having a better concept for a drug — they needed a better idea to start with. Drug companies are now looking for whole new approaches to development — and the company that finds a better approach (and that’s a Big Idea) will be a huge winner in the marketplace. They already know how to execute.
Another example, A Nashville songwriter I know, let’s call him Jake, has written and pitched songs for 20 years. A few have been recorded, but none were hits. Was the problem execution? Probably not. He wrote lots of songs, he pitched lots of songs, a decent number were recorded by known artists, but with poor results. On the other hand, English country boy Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics to dozens of hit songs for Elton John, and those poetic lyrics would probably have been hits for any top recording artist. What’s the difference between Bernie Taupin and my friend Jake? Better quality songs. Better ideas for quality songs. Elton’s execution was the fourth leaf that completed the clover.
So, in my view it’s not about ideas or execution. It’s about ideas AND execution. It may be an obvious thing to say, but innovator’s can go wrong on both ends of the equation. As I’ve said before, Innovation is a Holistic Process. It’s not about one thing, it’s about many.