top of page
  • Lou Killeffer

ABCs of Innovation: E is for Execution

Perhaps the primary best practice for successful innovation, and the one that sounds most obvious but far too often goes overlooked until it’s far too late, is execution.

Most people, however, believe the biggest challenge of innovation is generating breakthrough ideas. Fair enough. Undeniably, certain people, and clearly some organizations, are better at creating and nurturing good ideas. Indeed, an ever-expanding idea-industrial-complex thrives through a dizzying array of seminars, workshops, and tutorials that promise with professional counseling, and enough Post-it Notes, everyone can and will have a great idea!

Thomas Edison was Right

Regardless of how we arrive at them, we all tend to think ideas, particularly our own, are special. Well, if that’s what you think, and you’re engaged in corporate innovation, this post recommends you think again. In reality, a lot of people have a lot of good ideas. And some of them are your colleagues. At the end of the day, the critical difference between innovation success and failure isn’t found in the idea - it lies entirely in execution.

Edison, aka the "Wizard of Menlo Park”, brilliantly affirmed this in 1902. While deflecting praise for his own towering intellect and extraordinary achievements, Edison said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” While Edison was an historic, world-class inventor, acquiring a record number of 1,093 US patents(!), no one’s ever given a better definition of the essence and guts of innovation.

Now while you might assume execution would be the sweet spot of most companies, as most of the innovators in corporate America know all too well, in fact, execution is the really hard, part. It’s where ideas go to die.

This is because while getting something designed, tested, on the line and out the door should be relatively easy because that’s what every company already does every day - innovation by definition is an outlier. In fact, the operations of the company are in direct conflict with the entire idea of innovation.

Operational excellence naturally seeks equilibrium, everything moving smoothly forward on an even keel. And as operations throw off revenues and profits they warrant and receive a great deal of time, attention, and tender loving care. This is as it should be. Everything studied and honed to a fine edge, to near perfection.

6 Sigma, as simply the most famous example, promotes process improvment in pursuit of operational excellence - not innovative opportunity. This dynamic can provoke a tug-of-war within the company between us and them; efficiency and productivity versus freedom and flexibility. Even where these two opposites can find enightened co-existence, their cohorts and cultures are likely at loggerheads. One clearly drives the enterprise P&L and one clearly doesn’t. Who would you bet the company on?

Like Edison, and virtually any entrepreneur, the successful innovator knows she'll never have enough time, money, or people to get the job done so she becomes tenaciously resourceful in setting priorities and accessing the resources she needs: all the time keeping the project moving forward day in and day out.

The combined strength of this ambitious attitude and determined effort is what gets new things done. It’s the tireless leadership of people with the will to win, whose acumen and personality drive them to make things happen.

Corporations must embrace these problem solvers and the energy they bring to scaling obstacles to succeed at innovation. All the rest follows...For without them, and their “genius”, the ask is too great, the journey too discouraging, and the results all too predictable: hollowed out good intentions and gloriously unrealized big ideas.

bottom of page