Execute or Innovate?

Some still think that the start up culture that is associated with Silicon Valley and high tech is a fad. That tech companies don’t really produce value the way that old fashioned companies once did. GM makes cars, for example. What does Google make?

At one level, they have a point. Manufacture in the old days produced concrete stuff that one could sell and buy. Own and use. There was a certain stability in this that is very comforting. And the 21st century seems to be moving us away from that sort of comfort. We hear more and more about “disruption”.

To get a better handle on this, we might first think, what is the difference between a “fad” (short term thing that will fizzle out) and a “phase” (short term thing that will lead us to the next thing). The hula hoop was a fad from the 1950’s. Is the smartphone? I think not. But why not? Fred Wilson writes about this today with respect to Facebook.

The bottom line here is that in the old days “phases” happened relatively infrequently. Indeed, pent up forces sometimes had to explode before societies would react. We call that revolution. These days, we no longer think of “innovation” as something that happens every now and then. We talk about making institutional investments that produce innovations on a more regular basis. Thus our great new thing has a shelf life. In a few years, the market will likely have moved forward.

Steve Blank offers a few thoughts about this in his commencement address to ESADE graduates. As a trainer, the idea that most interested me is that we need to nurture our capacity to produce new ideas. And the more we are obsessed by “execution” the less capacity we have left for innovation. Put another way, the more complex execution is, the less we will be able to move beyond a given process. The phrase “stuck in the mud” comes to mind.

Does this matter to individuals? Absolutely. It is the difference between a “task orientation” (execution) and a “flow orientation” (innovation). This is something that we need to understand and master.

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