Drawing the Line Between Promoting Execution and Disregarding Ideas

  • The Cult of Execution
  • How Are Fathers Made?
  • The Startup Success Soup
  • Liberating the Culture of Innovation
  • The Power of Great Ideas

The Cult of Execution

There’s a common, ever growing saying in entrepreneurship and startup communities – “Ideas are a dime a dozen. Execution is what matters.” While commonsense does tell us that execution is really, really important, it is possible to overemphasize on execution at the expense of thinking hard about good ideas. And that’s exactly what we are doing.

The execution over ideas mantra has a fencing social effect. In the company of entrepreneurs (some from my experience, at least), one is immediately looked upon as naïve and inexperienced when they act as though they had a priceless idea. Worse still, it would seem like anyone who wants to raise a flag up for ideas has not worked hard enough. Well, I’m raising a dozen flags for ideas here, and believe me, I have executed a whole lot.

I started out my journey as a rapid executor. I would wake up, walk around looking for ideas on what to build (or sometimes they jumped at me), I begin piecing thoughts together based on the resources available, and before the day’s end, I had either completed or made significant progress on my project. I did this every week for many, many years growing up. By the time I turned 16, I had worked on an enormous variety of things spread over 10,000 hours of intense execution. And that was some 10 years ago.

How Are Fathers Made?

To begin with this analysis, let us assume there are two clear sides – those who believe ideas matter (the “idea camp”) and those who believe execution is what counts (the “execution camp”). Considering the story of how Isaac Newton discovered the laws of gravitation when he observed a falling apple (or if you prefer the folktale version, an apple that fell on his head), the idea camp would say:

“Many people saw apples fall, but it took the brilliant idea of Newton to convert that into the making of a prominent scientific law.”

The execution camp would say:

“Isaac Newton saw the apple but he had to work hard to derive the laws to validate and explain his theory. If he didn’t, he would have died with the idea.”

Both camps have a point. But it seems like the argument of the execution camp is an improvement on the idea argument. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing for ideas. It instead points us to the role of ideas in execution. In this light, I would note that ideas qualify, amplify, and clarify (in the sense that they present a direction). This could be illustrated with a hypothetical comparison based on Newton’s story:

Isaac Newton vs Eric Glutton

  • Isaac Newton sees the fallen apple and catches an insight on gravity.
  • Eric Glutton sees the fallen apple and gains inspiration to invent a squashed apple delicacy.
  • Isaac Newton works hard at his vision and becomes the father of classical physics.
  • Eric Glutton becomes the father of fruit salad.

Both observers paid attention, took note, and executed on their ideas, working hard to make it a reality. But the very nature of their ideas determined the direction of their impact. Because not all directions extend similarly, this in turn sets a potential limit on the magnitude of that impact.

The Startup Success Soup

To explore the true relevance of ideas to startup success, let us refer to real data. YCombinator president Sam Altman states:

“I myself used to believe ideas didn’t matter that much, but I’m definitely sure that’s wrong now.”

This is not data. I know. It’s not really about who said it, but why he said it (that’s the whole point of this note). Having studied a host of start-ups, YC’s data lists the 4 important factors for startup success:

  • Idea
  • Product
  • Team
  • Execution

By the standards of the execution camp, the idea should not have made the list. But the fact that it does implies that the unimportance of ideas is false.

The factors of success presented by YC’s data are indeed intertwined and should really not be considered in isolation. There is the idea of timing, the idea of the team, and the execution of putting together a team. Furthermore, one cannot execute intelligently without constant ideation. The conscious application of this dynamic – creative execution – is one of the core Values at Paperloops.

In some fields (like with Newton’s example), indeed, ideas are markedly more important than in entrepreneurship. But it is not because less execution is required on good ideas there or that the professionals are a bunch of slackers. Rather, it’s easier to recognize great ideas earlier on in those fields. In business, the uncertainties of the market are just too great that what was a good idea could turn out bad. 

Liberating the Culture of Innovation

It is not just enough to know that the unimportance of ideas is false. We must resist this doctrine. It is clearly not necessary to disregard ideas while promoting excellent execution. If we do not drive this execution over ideas mantra out of fashion, we risk fostering a widespread culture of hardworking entrepreneurs breaking their backs over mediocre ideas. In another note, I write about the problem with simply appealing to the opinions of successful entrepreneurs.

Indeed, popular culture sensationalizes ideas and brilliance to the point where discarding insight and inspiration altogether may seem like the rational action. But this is counterproductive. Possibly the worst downside of relegating ideas to insignificance is that we seem to imply all ideas deserve the same credit. But this is clearly unrealistic. No one with a sound mind would back-up an Amazon for frozen rat urine startup.

Our inability to detect good ideas without the validation of execution is not the fault of the ideas. Rather, it is the fault of our limited foresight. If we had an AI system that manages to rank and predict idea success with 90% accuracy, the breakthrough would be followed by global competitions where people just come and pitch untested ideas for a million dollars in prize money. Of course, the organizers would have to hire a solid team of executors. Oh, and it would be a secret competition too. You can guess why.

The Power of Great Ideas

The data and personal experience has shown that ideas do matter. And as someone who has had and executed on a lot of it, I have no reservations stating that you just can’t beat the power of a great idea. Here are some key benefits to executing on what is a truly brilliant idea:

  • The ecstasy of Eureka!
  • Motivation to lead and to be followed
  • The liberty for creative execution
  • Inspiration for the future generations
  • A giant leap in advancement

Great ideas are amazing. In fact, anyone who thinks all ideas are worth no more than a dime a dozen has probably not had a remarkable, one-in-million one. A distinct idea is called a patent (something developing countries could use a lot more of) and the greatest companies create and protect millions of dollars in intellectual property. As an emerging economy, there’s a need for a lot more of those one-in-a-million ideas coming to light for the attainment of higher levels of socioeconomic advancement.

Also, great ideas are great in themselves, not depending on how well the thinker would execute on them. So, if you’re really good at coming up with great ideas, keep doing that. Excellent execution requires hard work. Excellent ideation requires hard thought. It’s okay to be an arm if someone else can be the legs. I’ll write more about the features of a great idea in another note.

Execution matters a lot. We cannot simply will things into being (yet, because no one has gotten the right idea for doing that). So, let us continue to execute. But in doing so, let us keep in mind that we would be accomplishing things at a magnitude much greater – if we simply had a better idea.