It’s effectiveness, and not ideas or execution, which is the strongest determinant for success

We’re told that execution is everything. While a good idea might be useful, execution is seen as the factor that will determine the success or failure of our business venture. Many people find this comforting as good ideas are rare, seemingly springing from nowhere, and few of us hold little hope of having a really good idea in our lifetime. (One definition of “genius” is someone who manages to have more than one good idea before they die.) Execution, however, is something we can control. We can practice, improving our skill, making us more likely to succeed.

Our focus first on ideas and then execution distracts us – possibly intentionally so – from the real driver for success in business: luck. Brilliant ideas – ideas who’s time has come – are obviously rare. And then there’s our natural proclivity to overestimate our own abilities. (Such as the vast majority of drivers who think they are better than average drivers. Some of them must be wrong). While we don’t like to admit it, finding ourselves at the right place at the right time with a good enough solution is more important than any other single factor.

Google is a case in point. We can admire skill of Larry Page and Serge Brin, and the search algorithm they developed was obviously better than what came before, but neither of these is sufficient to explain the success that is Google today. Something else was required; luck had a large part to play in their success. If they hadn’t been turned down when they tried for sell a young Google for something like one million dollars, if the didn’t have access to the venture capital community on Sand Hill Road, if they …

We don’t like to talk about needing luck, as allowing luck into the equation implies that something is outside our control, that a success was not the result of our skills alone. If we rolled the Google dice again, from a starting position where the world was slightly different, would Google float to the top? Or would someone else find themselves at the right place at the right time with a good enough idea?

Many business leaders have penned biographies which highlight how their skill – and their skill alone – drove their organisations ever higher. A few are brave enough to admit that they were lucky, and that they were smart enough to to make the most of luck when it flowed their way.

Business is a numbers game. While each throw of the dice might be random, across a number of rolls we can can identify trends which we can use to tip the odds into our favour. An effective player realises this and works to exploit the trends they see and increase their luck. Or as one smart and lucky golfer was heard to say:

The more I practice, the luckier I get.

— Gary Player

The large innovative move from an established company, or the disruptive startup that become a billion dollar company at the founders first attempt, is the exception. There is no silver bullet, a single thing they did and which we can replicate.

Most of us need to play a longer game if we want to see success. Each time we roll the dice we need to ensure that the odds move a little further into our favour by:

  • being frugal with our resources
  • moving to a position where we have a better chance of success
  • make the most of the opportunities that are presented to us
  • learning from our previous mistakes

It’s not ideas or execution that determine our success. Both are important but neither is sufficient. It’s our ability to increasingly become more effective with each action we take – our ability to learn from our mistakes, rather than our ability to improve our skills – increasing our luck to the point that one day it overflows and we find ourselves with a success.

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