Innovation is Overrated: How Execution Can Make Up For an Average Idea

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The tech media is obsessed with innovation. Front pages of sites like The Verge, Wired, or Fast Company tell us very clearly that innovation is all about cool, new ideas. Pragmatic iteration is overlooked as the boring rehashing of old things, while exciting ‘moonshots’ and 10X leaps are fetishised. However, the opposite is often true: the most successful companies in the world focus on nailing iterative execution, not constant reinvention.

For companies tasked with releasing new products, the urge to seem innovative can be a distraction, or worse, it could even be damaging for your company.

When the flashy, new ideas get more coverage, companies tend to assign more weight to them. Especially those companies currently attempting digital transformation or struggling with creating products in the first place. Working on a banking product that will dramatically reduce the friction of creating a new account? Sounds great, but where’s the innovation? You need to give us a story or what do we have to write about? What would Snapchat do?

Everybody Wants to Look Cutting-Edge

At an industry level innovation is being defined as creating things that are 10X better rather than 10% better. The problem is that this 10X is often focused purely on the idea; rather than the execution of that idea. Remember when the press was completely in love with the innovative Windows Phone UI? They hailed its arrival as proof that Apple’s iOS was about to become irrelevant.

Apple’s steady execution of their plan to build a huge developer community created one of the best app ecosystems on any platform and rendered all those cool tile animations pointless. Microsoft couldn’t gain traction with developers. Key apps like Instagram never made it to the platform and eventually the entire product was killed off.

Apple is a perfect example of a company that prioritises execution over ideas. This requires a huge amount of confidence in their strategies and a lot of patience. Apple waits while other companies make their moves, then figures out how to absolutely nail the execution before releasing anything.

Execution > Innovation

My favourite visualisation of Innovation is from a book called “Anything You Want” by Derek Sivers. He states that “ideas are only multipliers of execution.” A “so-so” idea could be worth a lot if it’s executed well, whereas an “amazing” idea is worth nothing with bad execution. Here’s a reproduction of how that looks in the book:

I know the numbers below don’t actually correlate to actual profits, it’s just an example of the principle

Let’s take an example, The Nintendo Switch. The Switch has been wildly successful on the console market, even more so when compared with the complete flop of Nintendo’s previous console, the Wii U.

So what happened? Is the Switch something completely different and unique? No, actually, it’s a very similar premise to the Wii U but with much better execution. They still released a console that can work both portable and docked to a TV. But this time you can take it anywhere, it has better games and the marketing material actually showed some good use cases. Same idea, different execution.

What about the holy grail of “Brilliant Idea” and “Brilliant Execution”? It’s a rare occurrence, but it does happen. The Nintendo Wii was one of those occurrences, the iPhone too.

Focus first on executing so-so ideas Brilliantly

Work on building systems that ensure a high level of execution, no matter how basic the idea — this is your foundation upon which to test out more exciting ideas. Trying to build the next Snapchat in your 10,000+ person, 30 year old company isn’t a great place to start. Instead, start with dramatically improving how your teams design, develop, release and market the basics. You don’t need to invent the next iPhone to create a success.

More on this discussion in my Podcast with Jake Knapp

The article is over but the discussion goes on! Below you’ll find a 15 minute discussion between myself and Sprint author Jake Knapp.

You can find it on any podcast app, on our Youtube channel, or on iTunes!

Full episode:

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Innovation is Overrated: How Execution Can Make Up For an Average Idea was originally published in Muzli -Design Inspiration on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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