A missing factor in the Ideas × Execution equation

This post originally appeared on the Versett Medium.

Has the following ever happened to you?

You are working on a new project with a client to build a new product for their customers. You come up with this great idea for your client’s needs. You solve the customer’s needs, satisfy business and financial requirements, and even propose a technically feasible solution. You spend hours creating designs and putting together a presentation outlining how it will lead the client to success. You run through the presentation without a hitch, then wait with bated breath for their response.

They say no.

They don’t like it.

They don’t think it looks good enough, or it’s not what they were envisioning.

What went wrong? It’s simple. You couldn’t sell them on your solution.

How come?

If you ask someone whether having a great idea or great execution is more important, you’re going to get a heated response. I have had this debate multiple times, with multiple people, and have held differing opinions over time.

People working in more execution-driven domains such as design or development preach execution as the key to success. Those who are more visionary and identify as idea people are hardcore idea ambassadors. They also tend to be the people having you sign that NDA.

I do not intend to be dismissive, both groups have their merits, but this is not a new argument. What I want to propose today is a missing variable in the Idea × Execution discussion, specifically when working within a consulting or agency relationship.

Derek Sivers illustrates the idea × execution relationship as:


One of the key takeaways in this argument is that the two factors are multiplicative, if either one is zero, you have nothing. If there is another hidden factor in this equation, you better make sure it’s not zero.

Let’s go back to the client situation from the start.

What happened? Why did you end up with a 0?

  1. 💡 You had a level 10 idea.
  2. 🎯 You had the capabilities to execute at a level 10 quality.
  3. 10 × 10 = 0?

Your Level 10 idea and Level 10 ability to execute somehow got you a big fat 0. ( level values are arbitrary and purely illustrative)

How come? What were you missing? Is there more to this equation than we initially thought?

10 × 10 × ? = 0

The Missing Factor: Sales

Idea × Execution × Sales

What good is your idea if the client doesn’t go for it? Without client buy-in, you suddenly have a zero in the middle of your equation. A zero in your equation means a zero result.

This scenario is common, as are the events that follow. It’s common to blame clients for not seeing the value in our work. “Why don’t they get it, this makes complete sense?” we proclaim. Just like the idea and execution portions of this equation, sales falls onto our shoulders as well. Operating this way is similar if not identical to the fallacious “build it and they will come” mentality that drives much of unsuccessful product and company development.

You may consider breaking down either of the existing variables (idea/execution) as a semantic argument. You could also argue that execution is part of an idea. I want to ignore these debates and focus on getting a bit more granular. Without putting things through this lens, it’s easy to overlook contributing factors and end up with a zero. To that end, this is just one additional missing factor in the equation. Knowing that we need to avoid any factor being zero, it’s important to try to identifying other potential failure points.

This missing skill — sales — is important in both an agency context and life. Ideas are only valuable if other people believe in them too. Money succeeded as an idea and has value today because other people believe it, too.

We need to get more clients to believe in our ideas. How can we get better at this?

Teach clients how to make decisions

Part of selling work is making the decision easy for a client. In our world, this means they may not know how to objectively evaluate design, and we can’t expect them to. Provide them with a decision-making framework to make it easier to provide feedback and make decisions.

Study decision-making and persuasion

Try to understand how people think. Learn about their motivations, what drives them, and what their incentives are in order to better appeal to them. Understanding decision making is helpful not only for persuading others, but it can also help you better understand yourself and why you make certain decisions.

Focus the lens inward to identify opportunities

Luck is certainly a factor in determining outcomes; however, it’s valuable to adopt the mindset that there is almost always something you could have done better in the situation. It’s a common refrain that failures are learning opportunities, but it’s only true if you actually treat them as such. Try consistently asking yourself how you can do better.

Do you have any other techniques that work well?

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