Ceilings and Foundations (On Executing Well, part 2 of 2)

My favorite story about innovation vs. execution starts with two writers in a web forum. Since it was a web forum, an argument was raging. One writer claimed that a novel needed to have an interesting and creative premise to be successful. A second writer clung to the opposite point of view: even a poor or overused premise can lead to a great novel if it is well enough written.

The argument got more and more contentious until the second writer, whose name was Jim Butcher, offered the first a challenge. He said, don’t just give me one bad idea, give me the TWO worst and most played out ideas for a novel that you can think of, and I’ll write a great novel from them. The first writer said, okay, here are my ideas:

  • Lost Roman Legion
  • Pokémon

Jim Butcher took these two ideas and wrote The Furies of Calderon, a very successful novel that grew into a seven book series.

Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher

Why was the novel successful? Well, he did find creative spins on those lame ideas. But mostly it was great characters, well-crafted plotting, spot on pacing, fun plot twists, and very readable prose. In other words, superb execution. I’ve read the whole series, and it’s one of my favorites.

But what about software products? Can you be successful without innovation? One great example is the game Angry Birds.

The Angry Birds app hit the iPhone in December of 2009 and now, a scant two years later, it’s hard to imagine a world where toddlers aren’t going crazy for them and the founding members of Rovio Mobile aren’t lighting their cigars with €100 euro bills. Was it innovation or execution that led to their success? Well, ask Liam Bowmer, who in September of 2008 released a web game with the exact same game play called Castle Clout. The game was renamed to Crush the Castle and released on the iPhone in September 2009, three months before Angry Birds. It would not be an exaggeration to call Angry Birds a reskin of Crush the Castle. And similar gameplay has been in various games for years, even before Crush the Castle (Scorched Earth, for example, first released in 1991).

Angry Birds

The critical difference that caused Angry Birds to be a world beater and Crush the Castle to be a footnote was execution. Angry Birds’ successful execution can be seen in the details. The graphic design clicked with their audience, especially younger children. The music and sound effects are polished. Small touches like the structures shaking slightly when a new level loads (showing that they can be knocked down, tempting you) excites your interest in a way that Crush the Castle just doesn’t.  Adding to the four principles from my last article, this brings us to our fifth principle:

Principle 5 – Great execution can make up for lack of innovation.

But what about the big innovators? Think about iPhone from Apple. Or sticking with games, what about the success of Valve with the game Portal? Or what about Pixar’s digital revolution in animated movies?

Companies that successfully innovate and then reap the benefits of that innovation have one thing in common: amazingly polished products. The iPhone is a great example. It is innovative, but like Angry Birds, it also shines in the details. The interface is clean, minimal, and intuitive. A lot of thought and user testing was obviously spent on how to make a 3.5″ touchscreen be the window into a satisfying user experience. Valve’s products, besides being innovative, are bug-free exemplars of great pacing and level design. You see that quality in the details with Pixar as well. It’s true they created a revolution of 3D animated movies, but the pure movie making craft that Pixar demonstrates would have been successful in a more traditional type of animation (just not as successful). Watch the first ten minutes of Up or the first twenty minutes of Wall-E and try to disagree. This leads us to the sixth principle:

Principle 6 – Companies who successfully innovate absolutely nail execution.

What’s interesting is how at least one of these companies accomplishes this level of polish. Valve has a strongly empirical approach to game development. They keep games in development much longer than a lot of their competitors and put even early versions of their games through tremendous amounts of user testing.

Quoting Gabe Newell, co-founder and managing director of video game development at Valve:

At Valve, we see our game designs as hypotheses and our playtests as experiments to validate these hypotheses. In addition, we always want to iterate and improve on our work, and we are constantly seeking feedback – through playtests and other means – in order to do so. By making use of a wide array of user research techniques, we will make better decisions and as a consequence, better games.

“We start playtesting as early as we can—as soon as we have something playable. We’ll start with internal folks and then bring in external folks soon after.


This leads us to…

Principle 7 – The best way to assess how well you are executing and to get better is through user testing.

Does an innovation have to be polished right out of the gate? Well no. One interesting example is another game, Minecraft. Released by Markus Persson initially as a public alpha, it certainly had some rough edges and limited gameplay which undercut its innovative game idea. But people saw the promise in it – enough to purchase the for-sale beta at a reduced cost (which included access to the final game when released) – to fund the development of the game. Playing the release version, for all its quirky graphics and sandbox environment, it feels like a polished and complete game. The initial alpha was released in May of 2009, and the 1.0 release became available November 2011. To date, it has sold over 4 million units. It’s interesting to note that Markus Persson had a huge base of players essentially playtesting his product and paying for the privilege! This certainly helped Minecraft become more successful.

Since I’ve been harping on execution being more valuable than innovation, let me step back affirm that innovation is good. It will basically do two things for you. First, it will get you noticed. You’ll have a chance to follow through on the promise of your idea. It will buy you time – not forever – but you’ll have a window. Companies get that chance and mess it up all the time, but it’s a tremendous opportunity that many others have made good on. Second, as long as your execution is sound, innovation will amplify your success – sometimes quite dramatically. Polished execution is the price to get in. But superb innovation can multiply your success.

I like to think of execution as the foundation that will keep the house standing. But innovation, combined with things like business drivers, will determine the heights of your potential success. Superbly execute something that isn’t very interesting at its core, and your potential for success will usually be quite limited.

My last principle, which I’ll allow to sum up this article:

Principle 8 – Innovation raises the ceiling on how successful a product can be, but solid execution is a bedrock requirement for realizing that potential.


The Product as a Promise (On Executing Well, part 1 of 2)

The year was 2002. Three men had a revolutionary idea for a new type of web site. This would be a new way to connect with existing friends and make new friends in a safe online “social network”. Not just anyone could join, you needed to be invited by an existing user. This could change the way people interacted over the Internet or even fundamentally alter how casual communication worked in the 21st century.

The idea had some initial success, and the company was funded in 2003 with a $12 million dollar investment from a capital investor firm. The site had enough mainstream popularity that Google made a buyout offer (which was declined). In fact, the company was featured in articles in magazines such as Time, Vanity Fair, and Entertainment Weekly and was generating a surprising amount of public buzz. Yet the company was doomed to fail to achieve its promise, their mantle stolen by a company with a better implementation of the same idea.

Any guesses? The company that was overtaken was Friendster. The company that overtook them was MySpace. Of course, both companies where bettered and beaten by Facebook. If you watched the movie The Social Network about the founding of Facebook without any other context, you would hardly know that any other similar site had ever existed before Mark Zuckerberg graced our world with his troubled, lonely genius.

What’s the point? Innovation is good, but execution matters more. This is the central premise that I want to explore in this two part series. In this first part part of the series, I want to focus on the product as a promise and how that plays out for the user and ultimately for the success or failure of the product.

The Product as a Promise

Software marketing seems to live and die by the bulleted list. Look on the back of any box of shrinkwrapped software (even games) and you’re sure to find a list of features that the software will deliver. Look on any web site for software, or a sign-up page for a Software as a Service (SaaS) product, and you’ll see the same thing. Sometimes you’ll even see a grid that includes competing products, showcasing which features they conspicuously lack. This high stakes game of bingo is played by product owners and marketers for the hearts and dollars of potential customers. But it misses the point.

That bulleted list is read by the customer as a promise, and every feature in that list creates an expectation by the customer that the software will deliver. The product owner might think of a feature as secondary or an afterthought, but the customer will be unlikely to do so. If that feature isn’t complete, well-executed, and intuitive, the customer will – rightly – view that as a broken promise. And broken promises are personal.

A Case Study: The Everything Software for Everybody

It was an amazing product for its time. Lotus Notes made hay in the nineties as extremely innovative business collaboration software. It sported and still sports an impressive list of features: email client, address book, calendar & meeting scheduler, instant messaging, word processor, database features, etc, etc. IBM bought Lotus in 1995 primarily to acquire this software, and this was haled as a tremendous strategic move.

How the mighty had fallen. By 2005, Lotus Notes had gone from dominating it’s corner of the the market with an over 60% market share to being dominated by Microsoft Exchange.

When I worked at IBM (circa 2004-2006), they made use drink the company Kool-Aid and use Lotus Notes for everything. At the time I observed that I’d never seen any application capable of doing more things less well than Lotus Notes. It was a constant hindrance to our day to day work lives and a horrendous user experience. More recently, competing products like Google Mail and Microsoft Sharepoint have gobbled up even more of its market share. There are few products that attract the same level of antipathy as Lotus Notes.

So what happened?

I’m not really familiar with every version of Lotus Notes from the early nineties to the present, but allow me to connect the dots. While growing their laundry list of features, Lotus Notes failed to keep up with users’ increasingly high expectations for the user experience. Some of the features were considered secondary and where implemented in an incomplete or slipshod way. Over time their user base took this personally and left.

It doesn’t matter how long that feature list is if those features are clunky and hard to use for most users. People will go elsewhere. And the best software is easier to use than it’s ever been. In short, the bar has been raised, and Lotus Notes did not keep up. The same thing has happened with many formerly successful products – I didn’t switch from Firefox to Chrome, for example, because Chrome had better features. It was faster and easier to use. That’s also why many people still prefer Microsoft Office products over fully featured free alternatives like Open Office.

Principle 1 – Poor execution leads to a poor customer experience every time, regardless of how innovative your product is or how many features it has.

Principle 2 – The bar for an acceptable level of execution has risen over time and will probably continue to rise. Products that fail to keep up will be abandoned.

The quality I’m trying to explain in common to these successful products is “execution”. Execution is the product’s ability to fulfill the explicit and implicit promises of a product, delivering a user experience that is reliable, intuitive, and pleasant. This includes the quality of the product, the completeness of the features, and the success of the UX design and implementation.

The Anti-Pattern: The Homer Mobile

Lotus Notes reminds me of the Homer Mobile. Do you remember that episode of the Simpsons? Homer Simpson, through an unlikely series of events which I won’t bother to relate here, was put in charge of designing his dream car for a major car company. The feature list:

  • Large beverage holders
  • Bowling mascot on the hood
  • Horns that play La Cucaracha
  • Sound-proof bubble for the kids
  • Huge motor
  • Big Fins
  • Power like a gorilla, yet soft and yielding like a nerf ball

And this was the result:


Needless to say, the product tanked, taking the company down with it. Silly Homer.

So what can we glean from this parable? By just stacking the product punch list with a list of (from Homer’s perspective) great ideas, Homer did a few things wrong. First, he bit off too large of a scope for a new product, undermining their ability to execute. Secondly, he didn’t consider what the set of core features were right for his product and whether they complemented each other. Finally, he never tested his ideas with a potential user base to determine whether there would be a demand.

Principle 3 – Be aware of what promises you are making the customer and make sure they are the right ones.

Principle 4 – Limit your promises to the most valuable ones you can fulfill. A more focused product that executes is a better start than a sprawling, half-baked product.

This may seem like a silly example, but I’ve worked on Homer Mobiles in my career. Maybe you have, too. It can be a little frustrating to be a software developer on a product that seems to be adrift without clear direction or achievable goals. It certainly doesn’t lead to competitive success in my experience. So if you are a product owner, don’t be a Homer.

Cleaning House at Apple

Steve Jobs understood this. After returning to Apple in 1998, he reduced their product line from 350 products to 10. Jobs understood that each product is a promise, and he limited what promises Apple made to just a handful – with the goal of nailing each and every one.

In his own words: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Execution and Iteration

Ah, but what about iteration? Can’t you have a lot of basic, clunky features and iterate towards more complete and polished features. Isn’t that Agile?

Well, maybe sometimes, and I’ll explore the idea more in the next part of this series. But allow me to assert that it’s usually better to try to iterate by scope as much as possible. Start by delivering a fully realized product with a narrow initial scope and fill out the feature set over time. Don’t start with a huge set of poorly realized features and try to fill out the quality and the positive user experience over time. Your user base may not wait for you to keep your promises.

As someone working on a new product that’s currently in beta, I have to admit that polish and intuitive user experience is by necessity an outcome of iteration and benefiting from a good feedback loop. But that should, in my opinion, be a priority in a young product. The grace you receive for being new expires very quickly. If you don’t provide a product that has fully realized features and a positive user experience, you may find that a Zuckerberg will beat you to the punch. The first one in has a head start, but a successful product needs to execute and fulfill its promises to the customer.