Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Smart People and Big Ideas

Are not enough.

Back in the day, I remember wondering how i would come up with the next big thing. My ideas included superconductor propulsion, network "life", communities of commerce in the early internet, agent based systems, secure communications... and so on...I was motivated by the big idea. I romanticized about it. About inventing it; finding it; dreaming it....and when i had it, nurturing it, cultivating it, shouting it, beleiving in it, rallying the troops with it...and so on and so on. Fwiw, i think you could replace 'big idea' with the words 'vision' or 'strategy'

I then had my first 'real' work experiences and learned very fast that there are not a lot of very smart people out there. In absolute numbers, sure, there were lots, but proportionally - they represented a minority. I started to meet them and realized that they travelled in packs, and often followed eachother. They were challenging and fun to be around. Smart people like to work with other smart people, and have little tolerance for those not as smart. Conversely, they have great reverance for those smarter than they - that break down (analyze) hard problems and/or come up with (synthesize) solutions or big ideas. From one hard problem to the next, one big idea to the next they moved in packs. But again, their numbers are few.

I love smart people - trying to find them, sell/recruit them, motivate them, give them hard problems to work on, work side by side with them etc...

I also love big ideas - again, the whole romantic aspect is attractive to me. I like to develop them, sell them...and so on.

What i've learned is that smart people and big ideas are not enough to be successful. You can have smart people and a great big idea and go nowhere.

There is a secret ingredient called Execution that often trumps the other two. I've met many smart people with great big ideas that couldn't execute their way out of a paper bag. How do you organize smart people, and in the space of limited resources and time, go after the big idea and be successful in the marketplace? What is your formula? Can you break down your big idea into bite sized chunks? Can you drive performance to a plan (chunk)? Can you act or react in the face of uncertainty in a fast paced environment? How well or how fast can you make decisions? What is your pace?

How well you execute is really about performance. The smartest people and the best ideas on the planet do not guarantee performance. Performance is driven by leaders and in the most successful companies, it is a part of their DNA. It is not something that happens by accident. It is programmed. It is driven and adjusted on a regular basis. It requires team work. It is challenged constantly by both internal and external factors.

Whether you are a startup, or a billion dollar enterprise, well funded or starved ...executing well, performing well is a challenge. It is a challenge that most companies cannot meet. There are scores of companies you never hear of, and then there are the perennial laggards that somehow continue to press on. This inevitably leads to a lifetime of mediocrity or catastrophe, mostly based on the dynamics of the situation. For example, poor performers can survive in non-threatening market conditions while they would surely perish under intense attack. On the other hand, high performers do very well in non threatening environments and at a minimum, they have a shot when the going gets tough. Still no guarantees that they knock it out of the park.

High performance can be tiring. It is work. But it also can be exhilirating and hugely rewarding. It is not for everyone. Is it for you? I am of the opinion that it's all relative. One man's top performer is another's poor perfomer. Of course, it's also contextual. It highly depends, on the circumstances at hand. It also depends on the organization. Think of the rowboat analogy....One woman rowing 10 times faster than everyone else in the boat can only ensure that the boat goes in circles or that she gets kicked out of the boat.

Execution is key to success. Smart people and big ideas certainly can help but alone they are not enough. Are you performing well? Are you performing better than the competition? Is your team performing? What can you do to help drive high performance....?

All questions to think about if you enjoy success....