Execution is Everything

Several reviews of The Social Network hit on an critical innovation point – that the value in a great idea is not in having it, but rather in executing it. The topic comes up because apparently the movie deals a fair bit with the lawsuits brought against Mark Zuckerberg once Facebook became successful. Here is how Jeff Jarvis refers to the lawsuit brought by the Winklevoss twins, which alleged that Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them:

It’s just business. And as for the Winklevii, they didn’t invent crap. Ideas, especially obvious ones, are worthless; every entrepreneur and geek knows that execution is everything. Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard drop-out Bill Gates didn’t invent crap, either, but he did execute. That’s business.

In his discussion of the movie, Lawrence Lessig makes the same point more strongly (both posts are worth reading in full too, as they discuss important issues raised by the film):

The total and absolute absurdity of the world where the engines of a federal lawsuit get cranked up to adjudicate the hurt feelings (because “our idea was stolen!”) of entitled Harvard undergraduates is completely missed by Sorkin. We can’t know enough from the film to know whether there was actually any substantial legal claim here. Sorkin has been upfront about the fact that there are fabrications aplenty lacing the story. But from the story as told, we certainly know enough to know that any legal system that would allow these kids to extort $65 million from the most successful business this century should be ashamed of itself. Did Zuckerberg breach his contract? Maybe, for which the damages are more like $650, not $65 million. Did he steal a trade secret? Absolutely not. Did he steal any other “property”? Absolutely not—the code for Facebook was his, and the “idea” of a social network is not a patent. It wasn’t justice that gave the twins $65 million; it was the fear of a random and inefficient system of law. That system is a tax on innovation and creativity. That tax is the real villain here, not the innovator it burdened.

Why does Lessig think this is absurd? Because, like Jarvis, he believes that innovation is all about idea execution, not idea generation. Here is how he describes it:

In 2004, a Harvard undergraduate got an idea (yes, that is ambiguous) for a new kind of social network. Here’s the important point: He built it. He had a bunch of extremely clever clues for opening up a social space that every kid (anyone younger than I am) would love. He architected that social space around the social life of the kids he knew. And he worked ferociously hard to make sure the system was stable and functioning at all times. The undergraduate then spread it to other schools, then other communities, and now to anyone.

There’s not really much to add (especially since we’ve dealt with this topic a number of times already!). In innovation, execution really is everything.

For some ideas on how to act on this idea, The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble is a good place to start. I’ll talk more about this book soon, but for now, here is Govindarajan making the same point as Jarvis and Lessig – execution is everything!

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Execution is Everything

  1. The assertion that execution is everything is incorrect in my view, or at least the way I view / value the components.

    To me, the supports that are cited above only address the legal standing of the situation and do not consider the value of the idea vs the execution in isolation from real world politics.

    It also does not address the true nature of ownership, which is not exclusively defined by law. Take logging for example, it’s legal, but not ‘right’.

    I am not asserting a particular view, although I am an advocate of the idea that the value is in fact in the idea. [success comes from execution], I am merely pointing out that there are other ways to evaluate and value the two elements.


    Mike Biggs


  2. Thanks for the comment Mike!

    I agree with parts of what you say. I’m certainly not trying to make a legal case here, and I agree with you that the true nature of ownership is not exclusively defined by law. I also definitely agree that everything that is legal is not also ethical.

    In terms of where the value comes though, I do think that it comes much more from execution than from the idea itself. In many cases, we don’t even know what an really is until it has been executed. There is a very good discussion of some of the issues relating to this from an innovation standpoint rather than a legal one in this conversation between Stephen Johnson and Kevin Kelly about their upcoming books:


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