Don’t Be An “Idea Guy”

“I’m an idea guy,” someone told me at a business conference. I winced, scanning for the exit. Here’s the thing: Idea guys (and gals) don’t add value to any business. And the very notion great idea are any kind of contribution on their own is foolish.

The world, and even your community, is bursting with ideas. Great ideas are so prevalent, in fact, the genius concept you have in your grey matter right now is probably not unique. Chances are, someone else had the same idea years, or maybe decades before you. If you’re simply an idea guy, that means you’re like every other person on earth.

But don’t worry. Even if you have said that before, you might not actually be an idea guy at all.

Idea Guy VS An Execution Guy

After over a decade of working with the smartest companies, and interviewing the smartest leaders in the world, I wouldn’t consider any of them idea guys. Leaders like Paul Allen, the founder of Ancestry.com, Howard Schultz, the founder of Starbucks, and Clifford Hudson, the CEO of Sonic Drive-Ins are execution guys. These guys know ideas are a dime a dozen.

Allen bought Ancestry and added publicly available ancestry data, creating Ancestry.com. The company later sold for nearly 5 billion dollars. Schultz observed Italian cafes and brought the idea to the USA. Starbucks is currently valued at over 140 billion. Hudson agreed to listen to a store owner about his self-made drink program. The program would double Sonic’s size from one to two billion dollars from 1997-2001.

The victor is the better listener, who simply executes on what others can’t or won’t scale. Steve Jobs famously said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” which is in itself a stolen quote from Pablo Picasso who said, “lesser artists borrow; great artists steal.” And that quote may also have been stolen from TS Elliot who said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”

Even some of Apple’s greatest designs were developed by Apple designer, Jony Ive, who had been neglected by former employer Tangerine and even the former CEO of Apple. Not until Jobs discovered Ive’s ideas did they change the company. Jobs was an execution guy. Even Bill Gates had to be convinced by his team the internet was going to be a thing.

Ideas Aren’t Special

Executing the plan for your idea is the first step, but still might not even be good enough. The most profitable companies not only execute on the product or vision, but they are also expert communicators. The fact is, people can’t recognize great ideas or great products. It’s up to the leader to communicate his or her vision in a way that makes sense. No one can identify a good idea when they see it.

In The Myths of Creativity, David Burkus calls this phenomenon, The Mousetrap Myth. You’re familiar with the phrase “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” right? Idea guys are big believers in this myth and truly believe if they just make a better product, its value will be apparent to the word. They’re dead wrong.

Consider The Washington Post‘s experiment with world-renown violinist, Joshua Bell. They placed Bell incognito in the NYC Subway system and no one recognized him, except for one woman.

Founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos explains this eloquently. “You can have the best technology, you can have the best business model, but if the storytelling isn’t amazing, it won’t matter. Nobody will watch.”

Saba Karim, head of Techstars global accelerator pipeline echoes this idea. “You can build the best product in the world, but it’s the best product in the world no one ever sees because you don’t spend on marketing,” Karim said on my show.

Play Segment ▶️
David Burkus discusses the mousetrap myth.

Saba Karim interview

Those telling you they’re an idea guy may as well tell you they dressed themselves this morning. Idea guys think ideas are unique, but execution guys recognize they are surrounded by ideas far greater than they can imagine themselves.

The next time your friend brags to the group about “having that idea back in the 80s” remember, we need leaders who listen to the ideas already present in their organization, hold people accountable and help them execute. Idea guys… kinda suck.

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