Dear great idea, meet marginal execution

In January 1991 Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of Disney film studios, sent a memo to his executives which included the following:

If a movie begins with a great, original idea, chances are good it will be successful, even if it is executed only marginally well. However, if a film begins with a flawed idea, it will most certainly fail, even if it is made with “A” talent and marketed to the hilt.

What a kick-in-the-pants reaffirmation reading that was.

This is the issue when an “entrepreneur” says they need more money or better opportunities or good luck.

Nope. Stop the presses. Wrong.

Throwing money at a problem will rarely solve that problem. Opportunities are everywhere. And luck is created by doing the work.

A bad idea executed phenomenally well is still going to be a bad idea. On the positive side of this: if you execute a poor idea well you’ll know pretty quickly it’s a bad idea and then you can move on.

A great idea with average execution, on the other hand, has a better than average chance at success.

The Problem: What’s A Good Idea and What’s A Bad Idea?

While I identify with his statement I don’t fully agree with Mr. Katzenberg. What he’s missing is that we are horrible judges of good ideas vs bad ideas.

  • How many times was Colonel Sanders’s chicken recipe rejected? Supposedly ~1,000.
  • How many publishers rejected Tim Ferriss’s idea for Four Hour Work Week? 20+.
  • How many publishers, agents, magazines, and newspapers rejected Tucker Max’s idea for the eventual NYT Bestseller I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell? Supposedly over 500.

Depending on who you ask, these were all great ideas. And, depending on who you ask, they were all bad ideas. These three were off the top of my head, but if you spent an hour on Google I’m sure you could find dozens more similar examples.

What To Do?

This is a dilemma. If we don’t know if an idea is great, good, bad, or atrocious, what do we do with our ideas?

Surely we all have some good ideas in the recesses of our brains. How do we discover them?

My suggestion, with a hat tip to Jeffrey Katzenberg: learn to execute, even if just marginally well.

So many things I’ve read lately have converged on the notion that when you have an idea you think is good you need to test and learn from it as soon as possible. It’s where my new motto, Create. Learn. Improve. Repeat., came from. It’s really a pep talk slash reminder to myself more than anything.

Here it is in a little more detail:

Create: Launch something already. Don’t rush it out the door, but don’t make excuses. Time is not on your side.

Learn: What happened when you launched that thing? What worked? What didn’t? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

Improve: If the idea worked with some modicum of success, what can you do to improve it? What can you do differently? What can you do better? If it failed, go to the next step.

Repeat: Start this process over, either with a new idea or with a new facet of the same idea. Alternate: keep repeating what worked. If you know how to make $100, you know how to make $10,000. It’s a question of scale.

Ideas are both fleeting and common. Keep generating ideas, good and bad. Write them down. Throw them away. Post them online. Keep your idea muscle strong by getting your ideas out of your head in some way, shape, or form.

Most importantly, when you think you have a good idea, execute.

Execute no matter how much sleep you lose.

Execute no matter how much it hurts.

Execute no matter how unsure you are.

Execute even if you don’t know what you don’t know.

Execute no matter what people tell you. Believe in yourself first, listen to misguided advice never.

Execute because, even though it’s not easy, you have no other choice.

Execute until you have a clear success or failure. Right now, that’s what matters.

14 Responses to Dear great idea, meet marginal execution

  1. What I’m finding myself and what I tell my clients is that when launching it sometimes feels like you’re/I’m careening down a highway at night at 5,000 MPH. It never feels ready, it never feels sure, but you do it because you trust that you’re getting there–one way or another. BUT, the more I/you do it, the more we get to be ok with feeling like that–it’s a capacity, a muscle just like anything else. Of course, telling myself this over and over again doesn’t hurt either. :)

    • Interesting analogy Tina. I’m not sure it gets easier the more I do it, but it gets more familiar. And that’s something.

  2. This post reminds me i need to stay focused on my projects without slacking.

    Even if it only goes marginally well. Also it is a nice thing to see products became massive bestsellers after they have been rejected over a 1000 times. Another lesson on not giving up :-)



    • Every “no” is a step closer to a “yes.” That’s what they teach in sales and, if you think about it, it’s very true.

  3. You’re absolutely right.
    The real trouble with ideas is that it requires effort to really get them. We people got used to getting distracted through all those ages of our existence here on Earth. And when we finally start thinking, we’re so startled and afraid it takes time actually act. And when we finally do act, we often stop immediately. We decide that if we’ve overcome one barieer there’s no need to go further.
    That’s why tweaking/improving and learning is so hard, I believe.

    Lately I started to practice thinking. I go for long walks and get ideas. I cherish them, often I write them down. I want to create a base of lots of great articles to maybe start blogging some time in the future.

    Getting new ideas while at the same time working passionately on a project that’s to provide full time location-free living is what pushes me to improve and learn. :)

    • I disagree. The effort is not in getting the ideas. We all have ideas. The effort is in not extinguishing or suppressing ideas. We’ve been taught, for whatever reason, to keep our ideas buried. Which is why I advocate getting all your ideas out, no matter how “good” or “bad.” Eventually you’ll come across an idea that really strikes you and spurs you to action.

      A few ideas on thinking:

      • Now I’ve to disagree. Just partially but still.

        What I mean is: of course we all have ideas that are buried. So what takes effort is to exhume those ideas. To focus on them. To expand them. That’s when idea becomes idea not a partial-idea or half-idea or something.

        Idea needs pondering, idea needs considering, idea needs thinking. Not part-(half-?)thinking between cutting chicken and talking to your neighbor and clicking on Facebook.

        PS. I know and love that text. One of my favorites. :)

        • True. In a way, the thinking stage on a idea happens during “getting it out of your head.” I don’t spend an extraordinary amount of time on all my ideas. Only the ones I think show promise.

  4. The phrase I’ve remembered from a while back about the actions of a ‘true entrepreneur’- just like a torpedo: “Ready, Fire, Aim!” Gotta get started, and make adjustments as you go!

    • There’s actually a book called “Ready, Fire, Aim” by Michael Masterson. I don’t remember if it’s any good, but I remember reading it ~5 years ago.

  5. This reminds me of the “fail fast, fail cheap” idea in The Lean Startup and other books.

    So, what I’m trying to say is, thanks for the reminder of this and I agree.

    • Yessir. I’ve been saying “fail fast” for most of my life. I like the “fail fast, fail cheap” mantra though. Just read Lean Startup recently (~4-5 weeks ago) and it opened my eyes to a few things.