Execution Is the Chariot of Genius
Written by: Lew Brown, Co-Founder and Partner, bluesalve partners
The timeless quote for this headline comes from William Blake and ends up on the signature line of all my emails. Before I came across it, my mails used to sign off with a similar (though not as timeless) quote of my own: "There's more success in a mediocre strategy executed with excellence than an excellent strategy executed with mediocrity." Why do I have this obsession with execution?
Probably because I’ve watched and learned the hard way. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed (and sometimes been part of) brilliant strategies, advanced “ideas,” superior technologies and genius engineering feats…that all failed. On the other hand, I have worked for, led or partnered with businesses that had “good" ideas that weren't particularly outstanding in their innovation or differentiation. Yet they were successful nonetheless, and they built their success by executing better than their competition. The games are played and won on the field.
Customer Experience: Execution's Core Deliverable
Execution at a high level draws on all internal aspects of the enterprise, from company culture to operational and financial astuteness. It also reflects an ability to be fluid and adaptive to externals when necessary; ask any business about the pandemic or tariffs. Most importantly, execution depends on a company's understanding that no matter what products or services they've got on offer, their true product is a positive customer experience.
There are all kinds of customers out there but only one kind matters: the satisfied kind. Great execution puts this maxim first. The positive experience that your customers want (or expect) are the source code for both execution and the strategies that drive it. Sometimes actions can be as straightforward as seeking new suppliers (customers want price) or more support (customers want help). In more challenging cases, the puzzle gets solved by working backwards. You identify the obstacles that prevent customer satisfaction, and then overcome them as the gist of your executional process.
Not Necessarily Better, Just Done Better
There are many classic case studies on how this can be accomplished. One that sticks out in particular was the portable music market, pre-smartphone. Although the MP3 audio format dates back to 1993, the first MP3 players were introduced in 1998 by South Korea’s Saehan Information Systems. Who could forget the revolutionary MPman (hint: everyone)? Multiple vendors launched products for this “new” format. There were some 50 portable MP3 players developed and sold prior to Apple's introduction of the iPod in 2001. Or course none of them came close to matching the appeal of the previous Sony Walkman/Discman products they were hoping to replace. Only a few of them survived the iPod's revolution, and the ones that did were permanent also-rans.
Why? Because Apple executed better. They immediately recognized that user experience was real market challenge, and that the integration of software and hardware needed to be much simpler for the consumer (customers want easy). They also recognized that the business model that could drive this revolutionary technology – an entire music library in your pocket! -- needed to change as well. Adoption of portable music players had been slow because most music had to be “stolen” via P2P services. Seeing this, Apple worked tirelessly with the music labels to push a $.99 per song download model. They executed a user experience strategy around this new technology at a much higher level than anyone else attempted.
Apple's iPod music player didn't sound better than the competition. It didn't offer advantages in the amount of music it could store. It certainly didn't win on price – it was nearly twice the cost of some of its competition. All of the portable manufacturers understood the user experience problem (though not all admitted to it!). But only Apple did something about it. Keep in mind that this all happened before Apple became the behemoth we know today. At the time of the iPod's introduction, the company had less than 3% market share of devices connected to the Internet.
Companies can help themselves succeed by learning, living and loving the fact that in the tech marketplace, execution usually trumps strategy. Doing a better job at the nuts-and-bolts tasks that have to be done to ensure a positive customer experience is the difference maker. Naturally, that involves the participation of the entire team, along with an understanding of marketing segmentation, and the ability to set goals, collect data and analyze results. Success is an iterative process.
This is a high-level overview, of course. Execution is usually attached at the hip to strategy, and excellent strategies are always better than mediocre ones. But I'll continue my obsession with execution and will continue to write about it here, because I believe it will always make the winning play. And I'll keep Mr. Blake's wisdom on my signature line. It's a good one -- thanks Bill!
At bluesalve partners, we have an active product development process we can share with clients to accelerate and improve their batting average. Better outcomes are good for everyone, the firms, the industry, and their customers. Let’s all get better together.
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