For regular readers of this blog, you know that I have focused on the power of execution and the importance of “acting with intent” across multiple essays. Across the 30+ years of my business career, I have been stunned by the lack of focus on execution discipline/regimens vs. the pursuit of groundbreaking innovation. Whether in food or beverage companies where I held senior operating executive roles or in my consulting assignments spanning technology startups and global bio-pharma companies, this dynamic tension between executional focus and market changing innovation has been a common denominator of my professional experiences. Even last week in a discussion with senior executives of a current client I had a division president say that “execution is all well and good, but when are we going to get a “game changer” to sell???” Once again another data point of this “dynamic tension” dance!
The title above, and the inspiration for this essay, once again comes from an unlikely source. Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of Leonardo da Vinci is stunning and the stories of this painter, architect, sculptor, engineer, etc., are beyond inspiring! In an early chapter Isaacson comments on Leonardo’s ability to “blur the line between reality and fantasy” and “knew how to marry observation and imagination, which made him history’s consummate innovator.” This paragraph really got me thinking. While clearly working to describe and explain this genius of the renaissance, I was struck by how applicable these ideas are and how helpful each element is to business challenges in the 21stcentury! Lets decompose this balancing act and dig into each element and look for helpful connection points to our challenges today:
“Vision without execution is hallucination”
This first of Isaacson’s admonitions rings deeply true to me personally. I have had the pleasure to lead large sales and marketing organizations across my career and I have often been charged with bringing new ideas to life across a number of roles and companies. My best and most successful experiences came when we took good to very good ideas and executed them brilliantly. Deeply planning out the executional requirements and driving executional discipline, “beating a cadence of performance management discipline” is my phrase for not just “planning” the executional requirements of a innovation launch, but staying on top of the daily reality of execution vagaries and course correcting immediately to insure market place success. Unfortunately I have been party to a number of innovation experiences that failed, at times because of lack of vision, but most often by a failure in the executional protocol somewhere across the landscape.
“Skill without Imagination is barren”
This second component of Isaacson’s thinking is deeply vital and an important challenge to my background and orientation. I have to continually remind myself that executional rigor on it own is not enough; it will ultimately run out of gas! Markets change and ideas, insights and imagination are the fuel for change and success. I remember a meeting I attended as a young brand manager in the late 80’s at the offices of Maxwell House Coffee. A upstart Seattle based coffee company (yes, you guessed it, Starbucks) had just opened it’s 50thstore and the V. P of Marketing for Maxwell House opined that American would NEVER pay $1.00 for a cup of coffee, especially not one with a burned roast flavor!!! To say that he was wrong is an understatement, to say that he had a lack of “imagination” of what “might be” is probably more to the point!! (Just a note, Starbucks has over 27,000 stores worldwide as of mid-2018!)
As I close I want to be reminded and inspired by the amazing balancing act of Leonardo! We should work and be reminded that “Imagination” is a vital requirement to create innovation and change, yet untethered from “Execution” it will come to nothing more than a set of professional “hallucinations.”