Are you an innovator or an executor? Do you have constant new ideas, or do you daydream into logic paradigms? Innovation is associated with open-mindedness, creativity, experimentation, and flexibility, while execution makes us think of rigor, responsibility, focus, and grit.
In the early days of Silicon Valley, disruptive innovation was king. Big, bold ideas were in; small, iterative improvements were out. The sky was the limit as the internet ushered in a whole new era. Social networks, smartphones, streaming platforms, and more were just getting started.
More recently, as markets have saturated and products have matured, rigorous execution and iterative improvement are more prominent.
What should we focus on?
When examining innovation, it’s important to understand that there are different types — disruptive and iterative.
Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor, coined the term “disruptive innovation” to describe innovations that transform a product or solution that historically were so complicated that only a limited number of people with significant wealth or skills could access them.
Disruptive innovations are:
- More accessible — making a product more affordable and available.
- Serve a wider audience — targeting the least profitable and/or new customers.
- Create a value network — where partners, suppliers, distributors, and customers all benefit when the technology thrives.
While disruptive innovation gets the glory, it’s rarer, often accompanying major shifts in technology. On the other hand, Iterative innovation is more common, as people start with something familiar and enhance it.
Iterative innovation involves modifications and improvements to existing products and services.
“It’s not innovation that sets Silicon Valley apart from other centers of technological development — it’s a willingness to iterate…Perhaps the key lesson from the Valley’s rise and continued prominence as a global epicenter of creative output is that innovation does not occur in a vacuum; rather it’s the result of generations of product iterations and failures that are eventually reorganized and recycled into the framework for a successful new product or company.”
Iterative testing, learning, and revision drive experience forward.
Execution: Translating ideas into reality
On the other hand, execution is focused on seamlessly developing, planning, executing, and refining a business plan and strategy, typically to reduce costs and improve profits.
We tend to glorify innovation, which can blind us to the hard work of translating it into reality. People have new ideas all the time, but very few ideas will ever see the light of day — ideas are abundant, but execution and follow-through are not.
The central premise of copyrights and patents for creative works and inventions tells us, “you can’t protect an idea — only the execution of it.”
It turns out companies need to master both innovation and execution to remain relevant and resilient over time.
To achieve product-market fit, companies need strong innovation. They need to create a new market, expand an existing one, or better meet customers’ needs. This requires creativity, compassion, curiosity, and experimentation.
Once companies have found their fit, they need to nail the execution to scale, expand, and thrive. “Being the first is overrated, be the best instead.” Amazon and Facebook executed really well, streamlining processes, supporting customers, and expanding their offerings.
Creative Directors are responsible for both innovating and executing. The design process entails generating and exploring new ideas while also refining and executing on the best ones. While these activities require different mindsets, people, just like companies, can excel in both.
Ask yourself and your team what kind of company you want to be. What type of culture do you want to create? What types of people do you need to hire? What support, training and development do you need to empower your people? What changes do you need to undertake as an individual, as a team, and as a company?