Want innovation? Forget invention, learn to execute

When I ask what innovation is, I often hear the term “invention.” Sometimes I hear “design.” Almost never do I hear “execution.” And yet, without execution there is no product, no service, no impact. Overvaluing invention and undervaluing execution leads to poor resource allocation and underperformance in most innovation-focused organizations. innovation is not driven by invention.

The primacy of invention to successful innovation is a myth, as I’ve explored elsewhere in my writing. That is not because invention is unimportant — it is a critical step. But actual invention precedes high-impact innovation by years or decades, if not centuries. Rarely are the inventor and the successful innovator the same. That is because good ideas by themselves do little.

High-impact innovation comes from putting the pieces together well — design — and delivering a great product — execution. Where does invention come in? It’s the raw material, but like so many raw materials it’s often better to source it from elsewhere rather than digging it up yourself. Don’t believe me? Tablet computers existed for decades before the iPad, electric cars were 100 years old before the first Tesla Roadster. The list goes on. I don’t dismiss the importance of invention — after all, I’m an inventor with 70 issued US patents. I’ve also led product teams and built billions of dollars of enterprise value. And I can tell you without hesitation that if you want to change the world tomorrow, stop working on invention, focus instead on design and execution.

design, execution, and innovation Great design is essential to successful innovation. Without an innovative design, you are making another incremental product. Great design doesn’t just happen, however. It’s the result of a process, a discipline. Learning and applying the discipline of design thinking or other iterative, multi-disciplinary design methodology is critical to successful innovative product development. One of the essential features of a good design process is bringing together not just the considerations of the product’s users, but also the considerations of the full product lifecycle, including the execution considerations around manufacturing, distribution, maintenance, refurbishment/reuse, disposal, etc. And if you don’t include execution considerations in the early stages of design process, you may very well paint yourself into a corner with few good options. And without solid execution, otherwise excellent product designs will fail. execution is essential to successful innovation what is execution? Execution is everything that it takes to deliver your product to the customer and support their positive experience with it. Execution is complex and multidisciplinary. Depending on the nature of your product, execution may include: manufacturing, assembly, logistics and supply chain management, site reliability engineering, devops, distribution, marketing, customer relations, security engineering, technical support, investor relations, partnerships and strategic alliances, regulatory compliance and governmental relations, and the list goes on. In some ways, great execution is harder than great design. Like design, execution isn’t one thing, it’s many things, spanning many different capabilities, domains, and types of expertise. But unlike a design process that can tolerate many failures on the path to success, execution must be done consistently and without failure; Behind every great product is a constant ballet or high-wire circus act of execution that creates the magic of the product experience. execution is invisible Like design, great execution is essential to a great product experience. Unlike design, most dimensions of execution are completely invisible to the users of your product. Your customers won’t be impressed with your supply chain management, back-end redundancy, robust safety and regulatory compliance processes, or thoughtful design for manufacture — because if you do those things right, they will never have to think about them. Unfortunately, execution is often undervalued by innovation-focused business leaders that put a higher premium on what they see as the “creative” side of their organization. This is perilous, because a failure in execution may doom your product, service, or organization to irrelevance. As product leaders, never take your eye off the “invisible” ball of execution. execution is about operational excellence and risk management And as important as creativity is to design, operational excellence and risk management are the keys to execution. Execution can sometimes require creative problem solving or new approaches, but be very careful about adopting new practices or processes on the operations side. Modest improvements in speed or cost reductions seldom outweigh increases in systematic risk; Innovate in execution only as much as is strictly necessary to deliver your product, and no more. execution is the final boss of high-impact innovation In innovation and product development, execution is always the final boss, by which I mean there can be no success in the market without solid execution. But we don’t have to go into that boss fight underpowered. Here are some hard-won lessons from decades of failures and successes: First, staff and resource operations and execution functions well before you think you need them, ideally as you are beginning your product design process. Involve these leaders in design reviews. Why? Because seemingly trivial design decisions have a huge impact on execution. You can’t just bolt-on critical aspects like design for manufacture, security engineering, or scalability after the fact. And lead-times for standing up execution capabilities are almost always longer than you think. Also, involving execution experts in your early-stage design process is a great way to benefit from the optionality of fixing potential problems early and to avoid inadvertently stacking moonshots. Second, never forget that complexity is the enemy, redundancy is your friend. This translates to having fewer parts in the bill of materials, fewer single-source suppliers, fewer dependencies in the source code. Remember, the most reliable component is the one you design out of the system, the most reliable partner is the one you don’t depend on. And as much as possible, have redundant suppliers and vendors and distribution channels. Finally, always plan on success. This may sound obvious, but too often product teams see success as a “nice problem to have,” something to deal with later, after they’ve delivered the product. Don’t do that. If you don’t have a plan now, you won’t be ready when demand surges, and your lack of ability to gracefully scale will cause massive stress for your team, create openings for competitors, and may doom your product or company to irrelevance.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this piece, you might be interested in my “Managing Innovation” essay series which begins with Innovation isn’t what you think it is, and other essays on devaul.medium.com. You can also follow me on twitter @rdevaul and on linkedin as rdevaul