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Settling the “Execution > Ideas” debate

Business idea analysis

If you’re even remotely interested in business, chances are you already stumbled upon the “execution trumps ideas” debate. It’s an interesting debate, one that spawned countless of articles just like this one. Here’s my take on the whole thing.

The whole debate starts with the notion that a business needs to have a great idea in order to succeed. That’s something you’ll hear often, especialy when it comes to the startup industry. People usually focus on how a certain startup has a great idea that makes it successful. It’s like an idea is this magical concept that only the chosen few can get a grasp of. In this worldview, building business is like this never-ending quest for the perfect idea that, just through the power of ideas alone, can ensure business results. Needless to say – this is painfully wrong.

Now, don’t get me wrong – a business idea is a must. How else are you going to produce anything if you don’t have an idea in the first place? The existence of ideas, and I don’t want to get too philosophical here, is not the issue here. What’s troubling, however, is this presumption that a business can thrive on an idea alone, and while that might be the case now and there, for most people the importance of ideas pales in comparison to the importance of good execution. This, however, doesn’t mean that a business can thrive on execution alone, either.

Wishful thinking

The problem I’m addressing here is the notion that one has to come up with an amazing idea in order to build a successful business. This problem is especially prevalent when it comes to businesses that are at the beginning, mainly startups. Unfortunately for them, they never find the idea that they are looking for because such an idea simply doesn’t exist. It’s impossible to build a successful business through the power of an idea. This is the part where the “execution>idea” supporters are usually right.

The quest for this “magical” idea operates on the assumption that certain, almost magical, conditions have to be met in order for business to succeed. This isn’t entirely false as certain conditions have to be met in order for a business to succeed, though there’s nothing magical in doing so. There’s nothing magical in some quality research, development, marketing and sales.

I find the lack of empirical evidence to be the most troubling. Most of the times when people say something along the lines of “wouldn’t it be great if we could X”, they are basing the X on their own assumptions about how the world works. Sometimes it sounds really intriguing and they get excited easily. This is the trickiest part, as people often act out of various biases and wishful thinking.

Let’s say I have a business idea of an application that enables students to connect and share knowledge. Sounds like a good plan. However, it operates on my subjective assumptions that:

a) students want to exchange knowledge in the first place

b) students are willing to teach, not just to be taught

c) I can make money out of this

While that really might be the case, unless I properly test my idea and support it with enough evidence, there is a high chance that it will not succeed for whatever reason. Unless I prove that those needs exist, my business is nothing more than just wishful thinking that is based on anecdotal evidence and that’s the risk nobody should take.

This is also known as the availability heuristic – a type of cognitive heuristic in which a decision maker relies upon knowledge that is readily available, rather than examine possible alternatives. When I hear people talking about business ideas, I often notice this heuristic as they are convinced that something is bound to work just because they have constructed an image out of their own beliefs and judgements. Although this doesn’t necessarily have to be wrong, actually starting to develop something without proper research is, again, a big risk. Availability heuristic often results in overconfidence and overestimation and I don’t need to elaborate on why this is problematic.

Something great that has never been done before

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing through Quora and stumbled upon a question where a guy asked if his idea for a video game is good enough to make a great game. An experienced game developer answered that having a good idea is, well, nothing special. He acknowledged that the idea was in fact very good, but continued, stating that in the company he works at they come up with dozens of good ideas a day. They ignore most of them or scrape something from each idea and implement that in their existing project.

His point is that there is nothing special about having a special idea. The last couple of decades have been full of video games that had amazing ideas but still failed miserably. In my recent article where I explored the influence of video games on the UX and UI, I mentioned Trespasser – an overly ambitious and overhyped game that had a lot of revolutionary ideas at the time. Due to poor execution, the game was a complete disaster and the innovation couldn’t save it from becoming a laughingstock in the gaming world.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with having an unique idea. Quite contrary, an unique idea still has a slight edge as it doesn’t have any competition. On the flipside, hundreds of Uber clones have found their niche and success, albeit not being overly innovative. If you have an idea that’s unique – good for you, but searching for something that has never been done before just for the sake of being unique makes no sense whatsoever.

Having a unique idea doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a great idea. A unique idea is a great idea if it:

a) solves a problem that hasn’t been solved yet

b) solves a problem that most people are not aware of

c) creates a need that people are not aware of

Every year, millions of patents are being filled and only the small percentage of those patents will be successful. At this rate of technological advance, we are going to run out of problems before we run out of ideas. Being unique certainly helps, but that’s just the foundations of a building we’re talking about, otherwise all of those patents would be a major success.

Whatever your startup or business idea might be, you should focus on building healthy business. A healthy business relies on two things:

a) Sufficient data

b) Quality of execution

What I mean by “sufficient data” is that your business growth should be backed up by enough evidence. In other words, you should avoid the availability heuristic. Cool, your idea about “AirBnB for X” does sound cool, but are you sure people are interested in such a thing or, better yet, that they would be willing to pay for it. Even if there are people who are interested – can you expect any growth? Your idea doesn’t mean anything unless you can back it up by relevant data.

It’s 2016. Lean is in. Spend your time optimizing your MVP (I wrote about that recently) and get a move on. If done correctly, most businesses can test their hypotheses a couple of times to find where they feel the most comfortable. By testing, you are looking for actionable information and the idea that is based on real needs is truly a great idea, even if it sounds boring and dull.

Great idea = Great execution

At this point I should address that I definitely don’t agree with the notion that ideas are meaningless and that good execution is all you need, altough the article has been rather critical of the “ideas are everything” camp. Simply put, I don’t agree with the notion that a business can thrive on the ideas alone just as much as I don’t agree with the notion that execution is the king.

Call me overly diplomatic, but I sincerely believe that a great idea implies great execution and that you can’t have one without the other.

First, we need to understand what the concept of an “idea” implies. True, ideas are mental representations, but we’re talking about business here, not about ontological philosophy. A good business idea (and it’s important to highlight the “good” part) doesn’t just show what’s made, but also how it’s made and why it’s made.

A great idea doesn’t exist for its own sake. It exists to satisfy needs (or to create them). If a certain need doesn’t exist or can’t be created, than the idea is obsolete, no matter how cool and progressive it sounds. In order to successfully meet the needs, the execution has to be good. If you think about it from this perspective, it’s easy to see why ideas need execution to be great. On the other hand, you need great ideas to have great execution.

It’s plain wrong to think that companies can thrive on execution alone. If there are no ideas, there can be no execution. I challenge everyone to name one case of a company overtaking the throne without being innovative. Facebook? Dropbox? Google? Great companies. Terrific execution. But they all improved on the preexisting business model through a fantastic combination of innovation and execution.

Great ideas imply innovation and innovation is prerequisite of long-term success. None of the companies we look up today would be as sucessful as they are if it weren’t for innovation and ideas that were executed perfectly. Even the small, generic startups such as various “Uber for X” clones do need ideas and innovation to separate themselves from Uber. It’s the execution that separates good clones from the bad ones. In other words, execution and ideas are like ying and yang of the business world.

To conclude – no, I don’t think that ideas are useless and that execution is everything. Having a good idea is great and I’m always excited to see new things come up. What I believe, however, is that people should approach new ideas cautiously and as neutral as possible as innovation doesn’t always guarantee success, no matter how much effort you put into it. Ideas are all about desires and needs and should be based on them. If someone plans to defeat Facebook at its own game, I have some dire news – the amount of knowledge and resources that these giants have is just too damn huge to compete with them. It’s a battle that’s already lost.

However, that shouldn’t ever discourage you. The great thing about ideas is that there are more needs that we even realize. Better yet, we can always create new needs. If you can’t beat them in their game, there are other games that just wait to be played. Find those needs, explore them, come up with a great idea and then execute it in the best manner possible. If you succeed in that, you’ve done a great job and I congratulate you.

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