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Why execution trumps ideas, and how to be good at it

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Support

It is not the quality of your ideas that makes you successful, but the quality of your implementation.

The challenge for innovators is that just having a fantastic new product idea is not sufficient for success. A good product has to be backed by strong execution. You will never own a product category as any initial success will draw in imitators.

The past is littered with failed first movers. Yahoo doesn’t own search and MySpace isn't the default social network.

History shows the fast follower is much more likely to win - so how do you stay in front?

The fast follower is much more likely to win

So, what makes some companies more successful than others?

In the end, the idea is less important. In reality, it all comes down to the quality of your execution. And when I say your execution, I mean the speed and quality of the hundreds of decisions being made every day in your company by your staff, all acting according to the information they have available, and in their own self-interest.

How do you make sure your staff are making the right decisions?

1. Clear company vision

Why execution trumps ideas, Growth Builder, company vision

The starting point for excellence of execution is having a crystal-clear vision of what the company’s mission and purpose is.

Google's famous mission is "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". This sends a clear message about what the company should (and should not) be doing.

It’s worth noting that this is not an objective. There is unlikely to come a time when they will say they have completed this mission. This mission expresses the problem they are solving.

2. Clear objectives

The next stage is to have clear objectives - which sounds easy, but in practice is very hard.

It is essential that they are:

  • not open to interpretation
  • measurable
  • have a clear time frame
  • all essential
  • realistic
  • achievable

This sends out a clear message of what teams and individuals need to be achieving. They should be cascaded down throughout the organisation to the level of individual employees’ tasks.

This can be an incredibly time consuming process and many people don’t do it properly. Every team has to come up with a set of objectives that will help the company achieve its top level objectives, and every individual then has to come up with tasks and activities that will achieve the team objectives.

As part of this process you may discover that the team or company objectives (or the time frames) are not realistic and need to be adjusted. But in the end you’ll have clarity of what people need to be doing, by when, in order to achieve your goals.

There are two really clear benefits to this

  1. the whole company is educated on the top-level aims and aspirations of your business,
  2. activities that feel useful but don’t deliver the results you want are minimised. Many companies are full of people working busily on tasks that don’t deliver the required value.

Next: codify your culture and values

Why execution trumps ideas, Growth Builder, culture is your brand

But the 'what' isn't sufficient. You also need the 'how'. This is where you need to articulate and codify your culture and values.

Culture isn't about beers and ping pong tables, it's about setting the context for decision-making throughout the company:

  • who you hire
  • who you fire
  • how you treat customers
  • how you communicate and so on

You need to choose values that really express the personality of your company.

Not just a list of nice sounding adjectives like 'honest' and 'fair' but things that really express a difference between the way you do things and your competitors. Your values can have an element of aspiration to them, but have to reflect what you currently have.

If your culture and values aren't regularly referred to in meetings when decisions are being taken, then they are not useful.

But, don’t take too long!

But even making the right decisions won't help you out-compete if you deliberate on them for too long.

The company that decides fastest, acts fastest.

Hence the famous Facebook motto "Move fast and break things". Most decisions can be reversed if they don't work out, and until you try something it's hard to know what the right answer is.

Make the decision and get into action.

Don’t second-guess

It is important that decisions don't get second-guessed or overruled once taken.

If managers countermand decisions taken by their staff, the staff will stop taking decisions and rely on the manager to make them. This creates a bottleneck, but also means that a person further from the front line (and therefore the best information) is making all the calls.

The idea that one person (even the founder) will make the best decision in all cases is patently not right –

decision making needs to be devolved.

Some of this may seem common sense, but companies find it really hard to consistently get the basics right - those that do grow incredibly rapidly!

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  1. Comment by Alistair Maclenan posted on

    The lack of ambition in this article is staggering and that it is posted on the "Innovate" UK website is almost too ironic to bear.

    It is a call to arms for the middle manager; 'don't strive to stand out, to have that one idea that might change the world, wait for someone else to have it and then just be better at administration'.

    "You'll be hard pressed to find an example of a company that does something completely unique and that has been hugely successful" - I don't know how 'completely unique' differs from unique but I would suggest that all hugely successful companies at one stage in their development, did something unique. That's what made them successful.

    To prove that point you go on to restate the unique mission of Google; the most successful company in the world. Ever.

    • Replies to Alistair Maclenan>

      Comment by Dr Eamonn Maher posted on

      I have to agree totally with Alistair. For decades now true innovation has been defined as a COMBINATION of something UNIQUE - whether its hardware, software or creating a new market sector - PLUS its successful implementation/commecialisation.

      Success has to start somewhere, and I thought that Innovate UK was supposed to be the catalyst which speeds up "time to market" from the original idea by way of feasibility studies and then on to collaborative projects prior to product, and/or process, development. So now Innovate UK would prefer to put the cart before the horse, and favours camels designed by committees?

      I would like to see Innovate UK pay more attention to "disruptive and emerging technologies" which are truly game-changing. It's easy to pay lip service to supporting paradigm shifts but actually they usually happen because of an individual with a really good idea, quite often in a small company, which he/she is determined to drive through to the marketplace. Often this requires the birth and death of several companies - this is the history of the semiconductor industry which is central to most endeavours worldwide now, but had a very sticky start after the invention of the transistor in 1948. One of the inventors received the Nobel Prize twice - not many of those about these days.

      Mediocrity in the underlying concept does not hack it if we are talking about serious ground-breaking innovation, however good the project management and admin are. Don't put the cart before the horse, even if you are a supporter of concurrent engineering. The "product champion" is key, and always will be.

    • Replies to Alistair Maclenan>

      Comment by Ben Fletcher posted on

      @alistair @eamonn

      I get your points, and I've changed the article to (hopefully) correct the implication that you shouldn't innovate. Success is (as you say) all about having a tangible difference between your product and your competitors (and being able to effectively communicate that difference). But even if you invent a new category of product, you will have people copying you - and unless you execute effectively, you will lose out to them.

      It's almost a truism to say that all products are unique - no two products are identical, and it's the differences between the products that mean the difference between success and failure.

      But beyond the initial idea, what makes one product better than another - a unique vision with a unique set of values, worked on by people who are carefully selected, well trained and informed, with a singular focus on producing the best product - that's what excellence in execution is all about.

      In the specific case of Google, they did not invent the category of search, but they had a better vision of how it should be done and were hugely innovative. Facebook didn't create the first social network, but once they had initial success they iterated their way to global dominance.

      I'm absolutely not advocating decisions by committee by the way. I'm suggesting that a clear vision, objectives and values help people in the frontline make the right decisions and make them faster with no second guessing - the exact opposite of committee decisions.