Code Simplicity

Success Comes From Execution, not Innovation

There’s a strange sort of social disease going around in technology circles today, and it all centers around this word “innovation.”

Everybody wants to “innovate.” The news talks about “who’s being the most innovative.” Marketing for companies insists that they are “innovating.”

Except actually, it’s not innovation that leads to success. It’s execution.

It doesn’t matter how good or how new my idea is. It matters how well I carry it out in the real world.

Now, our history books worship the inventors, not the executors. We are taught all about the people who invent new things, come up with new ideas, and plough new trails. But look around you in present time and in the recent past, and you’ll see that the most successful people are the ones who carried out the idea really well, not the people who came up with the idea.

Elvis didn’t invent rock and roll. Ford didn’t invent the automobile or the assembly line. Apple didn’t invent the GUI. Webster didn’t invent dictionaries. Maytag didn’t invent the washing machine. Google didn’t invent web searching. I could go on and on and on.

Granted, sometimes the innovator also is an excellent executor (Alexander Graham Bell being an example), but usually that’s not the case. Most inventors don’t turn out to be the most successful people in their field (or even successful at all).

So stop worrying about “coming up with something new.” You don’t have to do that. You just have to execute an already existing idea really, really well. You can add your own flair to it, maybe, or fix it up a little, but you don’t have to have something brand new.

There are so many examples that prove this that it’s hard not to see one if you move your eyes anywhere. Just look, you’ll see.

Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t innovate. You should! It’s fun, and it advances the whole human race a tiny step every time you do. But it’s not the path to long-term success for you or for any group you belong to. That’s all in execution.


45 Responses to Success Comes From Execution, not Innovation

  1. dria says:

    Personally I think “innovation” includes execution — an idea is just an idea until it’s executed upon and proven in the real world, at which point it becomes an innovation.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Well, except you can innovate and then execute poorly. I mean, you can prove that your idea “works” (that is, that it creates a functional system) with a poor execution, so I do think they’re still separate.


      • Rosa says:

        Interesting topic. Today in class we finished our discussion of Colossians, wherein this is a major theme. Because Jesus in preeminent in creation and new creation (1.15-20), we need not “hedge our bets” by submitting to the “elementary principles of the world” (ÏÎÎÎϿιχε„¹Ï‰ƒ½ του κοσμου) (2.20). Would love to hear you preach on Zephaniah addressing this topic.

      • but moved 90% of it over to an Ameritrade account to get a $200 Amazon gift card! Momma needs a new pair of shoes or ipod. Any ideas/suggestions. CD ladders? High Rotation Dividend ETF? I was even considering doing covered calls on high dividend yielding stocks just before the ex-dividend date. I also thought about buying corporate bonds close to maturity, but it seems like you end up paying +3% over the quoted price on the transaction with Ameritrade.

      • Corinne – I think so much of this is about getting a big head from time to time, about fashioning utterly unrealistic expectations, about living by that questionable principle that more is always better. I think that I need to sometimes take a step back and realize why I am doing this – because I love to write, to ask questions, to record stories, and to connect with other bloggers and thinkers like you. And blogging? It is a crazy thing. I feel like I could write a whole blog about blogging!

  2. Taras says:

    Excellent post. I 100% agree. Thanks for exposing this fallacy! Innovation has been abused into such a meaningless marketing term and is definitely overhyped. I agree that inventing something matters a lot less than being able to deliver it. Too bad that execution or delivery don’t sound as good.

    Notice how focusing on delivery of a product, rather than invention – makes the patent system seem kind of silly 🙂

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Hahaha, yeah, I agree. 🙂

      I think the patent system might be good for some things, but it should probably have a shorter protection limit (like 5 years or less), and algorithms definitely shouldn’t be patentable (since they’re really an idea, not an implementation of an idea).


  3. Funtomas says:

    Great departure from IP establishment, Max. However, I dare to suggest correction to your title: “Success Comes From Execution, not Invention” as innovation can be achieved perpetually through improving execution.
    Great post anyway.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Thanks! Sure, there are some innovative aspects to a great execution, like Ford’s use of the assembly line. It was the word “innovation” that was really being over-used, though, so that’s the one I wanted to really hit there.


  4. Burnout says:

    To further your point, Alexander Graham Bell was a great executor but he didn’t invent the telephone:

  5. Ant Bryan says:

    when talking about music, I call it “innovators” vs “perfecters”. only occasionally is someone both (at least in the music I listen to). I respect both, but most of the time I just want to listen to the best music (those that have executed it well) 🙂

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Yes! I totally know what you’re talking about, being a huge music junkie and a musician myself. 🙂 I had lots of music examples that I thought of, I just didn’t want to litter the whole article with them. 🙂


  6. Coenwulf says:

    I think of innovation and execution as orthogonal continua. Both can contribute to success. If you can execute notably better than the company next door you’ll likely customers on that basis. If you can execute reasonably well (but not as well as the company next door) but you have a more innovative offering you’ll be able to find customers who want that innovative approach. My suggestion for success would be find that minimum level of execution to make your product viable for customers (considering the playing-field of competition) and the minimum level of innovation to distinguish yourself from your competition. Then decide what to enhance for your path to success (execution, innovation, combination of both).

    You seem to be referring to innovation as only the first innovative step toward something that is later thought of as a product. In reality innovation is always a series of small steps. Even the key step of invention is usually a small one built on a pile of earlier steps.

    Ignoring either execution or innovation is a recipe for failure.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Mmm…you have to be massively innovative for it to be as valuable as a small amount of good execution.

      Microsoft is consistently un-innovative and yet quite successful, and when they started to focus on innovation (Vista, Office 2007) over functional execution they had trouble.


  7. Greg M says:

    Great executors frequently get to rewrite history to make them look like they were the innovators anyway.

  8. puzzle-out says:

    I think your post shows a worrying disregard for ambition in business.
    I used to think exactly along these lines, and my last start-up was well executed, but completely uninnovative (just putting two ideas together – fair trade + ecommerce). We were acquired, but the amount would have been MUCH more had we taken the leap and tried to do something radically new.
    There’s also a very strong link between quality of execution and innovation: the best hackers will want to do something completely new.
    Plus if people stop trying to innovate, then executioners like Alexander Graham Bell will have no raw material to work with.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Hmm, did you read all the way through the article? I agree, innovation is great. It’s just not really what leads to success.

      If you were acquired, that makes you far more successful than 99.9% of all startups, I think! I wonder if you even would have been acquired (or would have been able to develop a successful product) if you had been doing something radically new.


  9. Steve says:

    Disagree. Eventually the talented executors ARE in fact innovators. Ford made lots of inventions, Google made millions of inventions, Apple made lots of innovations in UI. Elvis is a performer – that’s different, for him it’s all about performing other people stuff composed (invented!)

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Hmm. So would you prefer to focus on innovation over execution? That is, do you think innovation is more important than execution?


      • Steve says:

        Of course it is Max. Unless you come up with new algos, new methods or new ways to do stuff (invent it) you will never make it big (i am not even talking about google or apple), no matter how good your ‘executive’ skills are.

        • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

          Well, Mr. Steve, I’m perfectly happy to have somebody have a different viewpoint than me. 🙂 Thanks for sharing it! 🙂


  10. Kṟṡṋá says:

    I think Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean “Inventing”.
    All it means is change something established by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

    So it does include “EXECUTION” and “CREATIVITY”

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Sure, if you include execution in it, then there’s no point in even discussing it. 🙂 But I think people just get too focused on coming up with new methods, ideas, or products, and think that that alone is what’s going to make them successful, when it’s really just important that they execute well, no matter how new or old their idea is. 🙂


      • LK says:

        You don’t want to sound like people should ignore the necessity of the rest of the body and focus on the head alone just because you want to emphasize that the rest of the body is lame without the head.

  11. Pingback: Long’s Weblog » Blog Archive » It’s Not Innovation That Leads to Success, but Execution

  12. VEnu says:

    innovation is importnant

  13. Saurabh Barot says:

    Ya, I’m agree with your thaught. Its always important that one must “execute” his/her idea smartly to make others understood. But we should not forget about “The Inventors”, ’cause if they didn’t invent then how they or we can execute it.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Well, maybe sometimes people “invent” simply in the process of executing well. That’s been my experience–I know that sometimes in solving a problem I or others have “invented” something that we weren’t even aware we were “inventing”, and it was only years later when somebody gave it a name we went, “Oh yes, we knew that.”


  14. Darshan Dhola says:

    I am agree on your essay. some of views are complycated to understand.

  15. agrawal sumit says:

    my personal idea is ,if we will innovant something then we can execute.

  16. Sunny says:

    Max, i like that you have given ur views. I am agree we should always present ideas, plans, informations to others.

  17. Roshni says:

    Each thing have two sides like a coin, good and bad. I am also agree and disagree with you becasue our old poet (Indian) Surdas created very good poems but he was not able to present them one of his student to publish them. but the poems are famous as Surdas’s poetries not famous as his student’s publication but as his own. Another thing, is that Einstaien is not inventor of atom bomb, one of his collegeu was invented atom bomb, but today he is known as the inventor of atom bomb.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Yeah, in art it’s very different than in programming or engineering. In art, it’s the creative person who I personally would like to think is important. Though, the people that we tend to worship as artists and musicians were also excellent executors–excellent with their tools, and frequently very good at selling themselves (particularly the modern musicians who we know about).

      As far as the atom bomb goes, I think that’s a whole other thing, because nobody wants to take responsibility for having created it. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that at the very least all of Fermi, Einstein, and Oppenheimer are responsible for it.


      • Tracy says:

        Okay lady, please explain where in your busy day you fit in reading a book that you picked ouMt!?!?y hat is off to you, I am lucky to get a shower without somebody fighting and crying before I am done.

      • Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “There’s no other way around it. If we maintain the proposals which are in this budget over the 10-year period that this budget covers, this country will go bankrupt. People will not buy our debt; our dollar will become devalued.”Yes, the economy will recover and limp along until the weight of the fiscal burden, imposed by the Democrats, finally brings it down.

  18. Jinisha, Kajal and Rinkal says:

    We are all agree with you, Moreover I like the language you used in the blog. I want to suggest you to watch one Indian – Bollywood movie- ‘3 Idiots’, it is related to this topic.

  19. Divyesh Patel says:

    Having something is not enough but how to express to real world is very important. The idea is not that how good it is but how new it is, and it is taken to the real world. Try to built up your success based on innovation. Innovation is a part of our lifeline of any country.

  20. Chirag Patel says:

    I agree 99% with you that success can be achieved by execution and not by innovation. Because if you express anything differently in compare to other that attracts more and more, no matter if the idea is ancient, but i also think that innovation is also required for execution to get success. so execution and innovation are both equally required for success.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Yeah, maybe. But the innovation could be a hundred years old. 🙂 I just don’t have any concrete examples where innovation was *more* important than execution.

  21. Nikhil Patel & Riki Patel says:

    I agree with you but tell me how will we increase the execution ?

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      That’s a reasonable question. There are a lot of ways to make things better. Focus on quality, among other things. 🙂 That’s a whole other study, and I’m sure there have been lots of books written about it.


  22. Nishant Patel says:

    Having something is not enough but how to express it to the world is more important.

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