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One day, Sara Blakely had the idea to cut the feet off from her pantyhose, and Spanx was born. This idea led to a skyrocketing business with hundreds of millions in revenue and turned Sara Blakely into one of the world’s few female billionaires.
It sure seems like ideas are valuable.
In the world of business, the mantra of late is innovate or die. Rapid changes in technology and it’s democratization have created an environment where just about anyone with an idea can be an innovator. Organizations also go about hiring consultants and analysts to help identify the business ideas that will make their businesses thrive, or at the very least, stay ahead of the curve.
We’ve seen the meteoric rise of companies on the strength of their innovations: Apple, Google, Amazon… and we’ve seen companies in trouble and risking collapse for their failures to innovate: Blockbuster, GM, Kodak.
And yet, people on the other side of the argument will say ideas are worth very little, that it’s execution that matters. This post on the SAMBA Blog says, “ideas are a dime a dozen,” and to prove it they posted 999 ideas that are free for the taking. Other articles give the impression of turning up their noses at innovation, making idea people sound like out of touch dreamers that will grind to a halt a business because they can’t get any work done.
My early experience with innovation and disruption
I consider myself an idea person. At one time I thought that made me unique, but now I understand that would be like thinking that being right-handed makes you unique. Still, I have collections of notebooks and journal scraps and voice notes and Evernote pages and Word documents and half-written blog entries… all in an effort to capture ideas for the day I finally have the resources to bring these things to life.
In the meantime, I sit on a treasure trove of ideas that just might be taken out from under me by anyone quick enough. Like when, in my early teens, I came up with the name of the company I would one day create and run. As a brand, the name was perfect. It captured the essence of everything about the work I wanted to do in my life and the values I had begun to hold dear even then.
The name had been in my pocket a few years and then some guy named Steven Spielberg came along and took the name Dreamworks out from under me. Imagine my dismay.
As hard as it might be to accept, an idea is only as valuable as the execution.
What art can teach about ideas and execution
I used to draw, and I always preferred the rawness of charcoal sketches to polished final compositions. I thought this was just a matter of personal preference. Charcoal sketches somehow felt more alive than final comps, and I liked that. I left lots of drawings in the sketch phase in order to preserve each one’s potential, rather than snuff it out by forcing on it a single vision of completion. I’ll explain why this was a problem in a second, but first a drawing lesson.
There is a reason the charcoal sketches seemed to have more life, and it’s one of the principles behind the technique of lost and found line. Take a look at this drawing:
Is this a hand? Clearly on one level, yes this is a hand, one of many I drew in college. But look closely along the top of the hand and you can see the line doesn’t completely outline the shape. In fact, the drawing skimps on many details. Why then should a drawing like this still make sense as being the shape of a hand, even though part of the information for that shape is missing?
It’s because, as the viewer, you use your imagination and pull from past visual experience to fill in the blanks and to connect the lines. Your imagination brings the form to life, making it seem like yes, this is a hand.
The charcoal sketches felt more alive because my imagination was hard at work finishing the drawings for me, and my imagination wasn’t going to make a bad drawing.
Finalizing the drawings however would have meant making countless decisions that ultimately would affect the quality of the final drawing: what kind of line quality to use, what medium, how to color or shade it… and once it’s finalized, that’s it. For better or worse, those choices are set in stone.
Why are unfinished sketches a life problem?
Like with sketches, it’s easy to sit comfortable in the possibilities of unfinished ideas, imagining the glories that a perfectly executed idea might bring. But the hard work is in executing the idea, because you have to make hard decisions that will shape the final outcome. And when it’s finished, it might not actually resemble very closely what you originally imagined.
To get an idea of what a difference execution can make, take the idea of a coffee house. Two well-known executions of this idea are Starbucks and Coffee Bean, and when you compare the two businesses you can see that one execution has been much more successful than the other.
Sometimes it’s more comfortable to sit and imagine the possibilities of unfinished ideas instead.
So, is innovate or die a lie? Who is right?
It takes incredible effort to make an idea happen and the people who execute ideas should not be taken for granted. These people believe in work ethic, keep their “nose to the grindstone” and live by values like “the early bird gets the worm.” Also because the biggest obstacle to new ideas is other people, those who are great at executing ideas also tend to be great at negotiation.
So if you have any of these traits, take heart. It may seem that innovation gets all the glory, but it really is execution that matters.
There is something special about a raw idea. Something that makes me think 999 ideas by some very smart people shouldn’t be discarded so lightly.
My own experience leading a team in this online course by Tina Seelig was that ideas are actually hard to generate. Brainstorming 100 solutions to a problem may sound easy, but it requires pushing through a lot of failure, and that’s not very pleasant.
You can try for yourself and see what it is like to come up with ideas using this classic creativity test: take a household object and imagine 100 alternative uses for it, like a shoe for example.
What the brainstorming process also reveals is that many ideas generated won’t be very good, and in that case ideas really are a dime a dozen. However, if you generate a high volume of ideas, and then take the time to refine the better ones… eventually you may end up with an idea that is like a polished gem, and those have value.
In the end, it’s both ideas and execution matter. You can’t have one without the other. So whatever your strengths are as an innovator or an executor, celebrate them and make some great things happen!
Image: Provided by AndresFranco.net under Creative Commons license