The Fallacy of Execution (and Sex), or Why Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't Answer Questions About Facebook's Origins

There is no cliché I hear more, and that I hate more, than the vague, poorly-defined and generally ill-conceived notion that "execution" is more important than "the idea."
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Running a company in Silicon Valley, you hear a lot of advice. It is sometimes offered by those esteemed individuals who are invited to speak on panels at conferences, by professors, by family members, by friends, by enemies, by the wealthy, by the not-as-wealthy, by the invested, and by the generally apathetic. Some of it is definitely good advice and some of it is definitely bad, and it comes regardless of whether or not the people giving it are actually qualified to do so. Often, it directly contradicts advice you've heard in the past. What is truly striking is that so frequently advice comes in the form of the cliché: the pat phrase that will supposedly solve all of your problems and transform you and your business into the next success story on the front page of The Major Newspaper--and of all the business clichés in the world, there is none that I hear more, and that I hate more, than the vague, poorly-defined and generally ill-conceived notion that "execution" is more important than "the idea."

There are a number of analogies that are quite illustrative when examining why the idea-versus-execution paradigm is pointless to even discuss in the first place. The simplest analogy among them is sex. There are two genders that we generally recognize: male and female. Both have their role in sexual reproduction; without one or the other, it is by definition impossible for sexual reproduction to take place. It would be pointless (and also wrong) to argue that male sex cells are "more important" than female ones, or vice-versa, which is why it's not an argument you see very often in journals that biologists read, such as Cell or Nature. If we suppose that a successful company, like a successful embryo, needs two complementary inputs to form--in this case, both a profitable idea that solves a problem, and execution on that idea--where the lack of either one guarantees a result of failure, then it should be patently obvious why it doesn't make sense to weigh one of those source's importance against the other's. (Granted, there are also a number of differences between companies and mammals, but there's a good chance that it's the similarities that led you to read this in the first place.)

Despite such thinking, or perhaps in spite of it, many people go on to assume that execution is more important than the idea, perhaps because anyone can have an [intriguing and profitable] idea--another common notion that is also false. Some of those same people continue to draw myriad conclusions from their apparent insight. These conclusions are similar to the kind of mathematical results that can be derived by dividing by zero. (In eighth grade, our math teacher proved that 0 = 1 by doing just that.) One such false conclusion is that "the idea actually doesn't matter at all," implying that the importance of the idea is equal to zero, and that "with proper execution, any idea can be made into a successful company." This is of course false. There are some ideas--say, the combination iron/cellular telephone, the imageless television, or the disposable jumbo jet--that even the best execution can't save. Put another way, the above conclusion means that there are no bad ideas, even while reality clearly indicates this not to be the case.

Another problem with the idea versus execution argument is that while the word "idea" has a relatively clear meaning, the word "execution" does not. Effectively, it refers to everything that isn't the idea, and in turn, that means that "execution" refers to a whole wide array of confounding factors that would make any serious student of statistics blanche. Funding? It's part of execution. Hiring decisions? Execution. Corporate culture? That would fall under execution. Engineering? Also execution. Marketing? Execution. Ethics? Oddly enough, ethics also falls under execution, which raises an interesting point.

There's another cliché that says, "rules are made to be broken," and indeed some rules seem to be. When those same rules are also laws, however, the situation becomes more complicated. If successful execution on an idea--for the sake of argument, one that could save millions of lives--requires breaking a law, is it worth executing on? Or if the legality of execution isn't clearly illegal, but falls into a gray area, does that change things? What if executing involves murdering one person (the literal case of idea versus execution)? What if the idea's benefit is nebulous in all of the above cases? Personally I would argue that regardless of the idea, execution strategies clearly involving even gray areas of the law should be out of bounds for entrepreneurs, if only because paying endless legal fees is rarely good for business.

There are plenty who might disagree, though, notably including every software mogul most people have ever heard of. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and even Steve Jobs are not celebrated for their kindness or moral rectitude. Just as we do with oil and energy, as a society we tend to accept that the benefits of using software outweigh the costs of developing it, which sometimes can include the strategic destruction of other programmers' companies and careers.

If and when it happens, all of this, too, is "execution." While I wasn't present when Microsoft, Oracle or Apple got started, I did happen to be around for the beginnings of another technology company in 2004 to witness what the word execution meant then.

I've been told time and again that the reason Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook succeeded over my own at Harvard is that I simply didn't "execute," while my classmate did. And so without casting any blame, I'd like to put everything that notion implies to rest. In his latest thirty-minute-long interview, Mark didn't mention anything about the fully-functional and heavily-marketed houseSYSTEM integrated student portal that was far more than a mere idea, the "Facebook" component that he joined along with his co-founders, the hours he spent visiting and re-visiting the site in January of 2004, or the Harvard College Student Entrepreneurship Council that created it, let alone the decades-long history of face books at educational institutions across the country. That doesn't mean that those products, organizations and events never happened, however. There's plenty of evidence indicating that they did.

So the next time you consider the importance of execution in a business situation, take the time to analyze exactly what it is you mean. The phrase "execute better" has never helped anybody. It's just about as helpful as telling someone to "do everything better," which is at best not helpful at all, and at worst insulting, since it demonstrates a lack of interest in getting to any real core issue. Worse yet, by endorsing a litany of things you never meant to, you'll identify yourself as one of those shallow Silicon Valley types who doesn't really think things through. And if we ever want to get out of our present economic slump, the last thing we need is more people in the Valley who don't think.

Aaron Greenspan is President & CEO of Think Computer Corporation and the author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era.

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