Some ideas outlive their usefulness. Other ideas remain useful but are widely misused. Others still are simply overused.
And some just need to die.
With a tip of the hat to John Brockman of Edge.org, I'd like to nominate two business ideas for the glue factory. I nearly scrapped this column, because they’re not bad ideas per se. Both are still in fashion today, especially in the startup-o-sphere, and like many popular ideas there's more than a grain of truth to them. But these two ideas have run themselves ragged, and I see them doing more harm than good when I encounter them.
Without further ado:
Idea that must die #1: 'If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses."
Fine, it’s a quote that must die. If you've never seen the above quote from Henry Ford before, then there’s a good chance you haven't been in the workforce for very long. The idea of course is that the customers are so focused on solving their immediate problem that they can’t envision something revolutionary. They’ll only know they want the revolutionary things once they see it. Powerful idea, but misused so frequently it drives me crazy.
It also might be the most-repeated business principle ever derived from a hypothetical statement. Just think about it for a second: do you really think that if a product manager from Ford had explained a sketch of a car to consumers of the day, they would have all asked for faster horses instead? Moreover, do you really think the Ford Motor Company never got any feedback along the way and just started cranking Model T’s out on a hunch? The moment of inspiration might happen alone, but not the execution (more on that in a moment).
Here’s why I'm ready for this idea to die.
- A handful of people every century have Henry Ford or Steve Jobs-level vision. The rest of us need market feedback to validate the problems we should focus on solving for people.
- It’s a handy excuse to not subject a beloved idea to scrutiny and possible rejection and to instead plow ahead building it.
- It is impossible not to lean anything valuable by talking to the market.
That you shouldn't only listen to the market should be obvious. Of course there is an important place for setting a vision. But it should be equally obvious that you can't build a revolutionary business without getting deeply familiar with your potential customers, and you can’t do that without talking to them. In the enterprise software industry, in which I work, the lack of market validation is a big enough problem that I started a company to help people do it.
Idea that must die #2: "Ideas are a dime a dozen; execution is what counts."
It’s often framed as a debate: which matters more? It’s like asking if the heart or the lungs matter more to the body. They’re both indispensable - the rest is sophistry.
If nothing else, the idea vs. the execution dichotomy is a lopsided argument. No one would ever argue that execution doesn't matter, because it encompasses almost everything the business does. So if you're going to pick a side in this false choice, there's only one side to take. But of course the debate itself is pointless. Between them, they’re the entire business.
There’s also a misunderstanding at the heart of the question: businesses and product aren’t built on a single idea. First principles, maybe. But successful businesses are the result of dozens, if not hundreds of interrelated ideas working together to create value. That's what a strategy is – a composition of interrelated ideas designed to achieve an outcome.
Take Instagram for example. At first glance, it’s a simple product that Facebook famously bought for $1B after it had only been a going concern for eighteen months and had no revenue. But there’s a reason we all know Instagram and far fewer know Hipstamatic. Why did Instagram go on to greater success and traction? The decision to focus on sharing and social networking. Was that an “idea” or “execution” thing? Kind of both, depending on your point of view.
“Execution” means implementing a strategy and adapting when circumstances change. As new information becomes available, resource availability changes, assumptions get updated, people update their thinking as a result. The execution and the idea both reverberate back onto and change each other. Eventually the two become nearly indistinguishable. What we tend to think of "execution" is really a continuous cycle of action --> reaction --> interpretation --> action.
New ideas are born throughout the execution phase as the team interprets feedback and new information. Those ideas are the difference between success and failure. They are not a dime a dozen.
Here’s an incomplete, abbreviated history of the idea for UserMuse to illustrate:
I don’t know for sure what comes next. The only thing I do know is that I'll iterate on both the core ideas and the execution until we reach product-market fit, and that I'll leave the debate to the theorists and philosophers.