Innovation vs. Execution

Slate has an article in the sports section that essentially states you are better off focusing on not making mistakes as opposed to trying to outsmart the competition.  This obviously will only get you so far in competitive sports, you still have to try to win every game because your opponent is trying to do the same.  But in the non-zero sum game of business this seems like it could be a more viable business strategy over the long run, especially for smaller and mid-sized firms that lack the capital to absorb costly mistakes.

If you focus on not making mistakes while your competitors are trying to develop the next big idea you’ll end up with a lean and efficient operation and save yourself a lot of R&D capital that could be applied elsewhere.  You can always copy and improve upon your competitors efforts after they’ve proven themselves viable in the market.  First-mover advantage is not always what it’s cracked up to be, especially in the technology space.  The iPhone was first, but Android dominates the smart phone ecosystem.  Before there was Facebook, there was MySpace.  And there were a lot of search engines before Google came along.  I think mistakes are far more costly than not getting to market first.

When I was a consultant at a large firm during the dot-com days the rush to get to market first was a primary driving force behind the projects.  Often some major mistake would be made in some not-very-interesting-but-critical piece of the project that noone had paid much attention to until it was too late.  In one instance it was simply not validating the vendor software actually did what the salesman said it would do before making a major critical enterprise purchase.  In another case the project manager left one engineer alone for nine months to write a critical piece of the project and didn’t check up on him until a few weeks before the entire project was due.

Early in the rise of frameworks I witnessed a major project fail because the developers didn’t want to learn and implement the XML/XSLT solution as the client’s chosen vendor product dictated and instead coded everything to use the plug-in capability of the vendor product.  It took them much longer to code everything by hand, and when they ran it through load testing two weeks before the project was due it consistently crashed the servers because the vendor product cached the XML/XSLT rendered content but not the plug-in content.   As an indpendent consultant I’ve had to rewrite critical custom software components that had been poorly inmplemented by the help desk guy because he said he could write code and was cheaper than experienced software engineers.  I’ve also seen a critical server environment deployed on a flood plain and another in a building with no backup generator.

My point to all these examples is they all ended up being or had the potential to be incredibly costly mistakes that could have easily been avoided.  But in almost all these cases the primary driving focus, the only ball anybody really had their eye on, was to beat rivals to market.  In the end, no matter who got to market first, it turned out there was plenty of room for everyone.  Of course we all need the first-movers focused on innovation or we wouldn’t have technologies like smart phones.  But for small and mid-sized companies I think a more reliable strategy is to focus on not making mistakes and just keep nipping at your competitors heels.  Flawless execution is a day-to-day form of innovation and generally turns out to be more important in the long run.