All good things start with an idea. It’s the seed from which the plant blossoms and bears fruit. Many of us treat the original moment of inspiration as the most significant part of a project – the thing we can trace everything back to. But do we overstate the importance of an idea? Research says we might.
If you were to ask a farmer what the most important part of his or her job is, what do you think they would say?
First, they plant the seed; then they wait; they water; they nourish; they protect, guard and preserve. Through chilling winters and sweltering heat, they turn their seeds into generous, sustaining crops.
Do you really think the farmer thinks the seed is the most important part of the process? Sure, it’s fundamental. But seeds aren’t rare. Anyone can plant them. What’s most important is the hard work. The long days and nights. The planning and execution. This is what makes the farmer special.
Anyone can plant a crop. But how many people can grow one?
The same logic applies to adaptation. Discourse surrounding adaptation privileges innovation and forward thinking. The executive’s role gets reduced to pondering the future and the ways in which his or her organisation can succeed. It’s all about reactions, malleability and agility. What this hides is the fact that adaptation would never happen were it not for an executive’s ability to execute.
The disproportionate weight organisations place on ‘the idea’ is confirmed by McKinsey and Co’s recent research. They say “too many leaders talk up the importance of innovation as a catalyst for growth then fail to act when it comes to shifting people, assets and management attention in support of their best ideas.” For example, one anonymous chemical company had invested 65% of its adaptation budget into small, product-related initiatives; in essence, around two-thirds of all money being used to help the organisation adapt was being funnelled into minor, disparate projects that only promised short term growth. According to McKinsey and Co, more of the budget should be directed towards facilitating larger, long-term projects which offer greater returns in the future.
What this research emphasises is that executives are too concerned with discovering the next ‘million dollar idea.’ They think that by constantly innovating and imagining, they’ll uncover this rare nugget of gold that will send their organisation into the stratosphere. This is the low percentage option; you’re much more likely to benefit by spending more time creating an infrastructure within your organisation that is conducive to growth in a new environment. It may be less colourful, but it’s certainly more effective.
This notion is reinforced further by the findings of Furseth and Cuthbertson. They found that companies who increase the number of people working on innovation initiatives – even by 10 or 20% – without the structures in place to turn this idea into a practical benefit will not create any meaningful growth.
What should executives take from this?
It is absolutely true that executives are forward thinkers. They are creative and imaginative. One of their aims should be to engender the same qualities in their team members. For an organisation cannot survive without new ideas.
Despite this, executives need to accept that they are not artists. They should not sit wistfully besides their typewriters by candlelight, waiting for inspiration to crawl out from the dark recesses of their minds.
What’s more important than the idea is the plan in place to execute it. The inspiration means nothing unless your organisation has processes in place to turn the idea into a practical reality. This means ensuring your budget for innovation is not spread too thinly across too many projects.
The best executives turn a simple idea into a masterpiece.