Learn to execute before you innovate

Mar 18, 2010 by

In the Jazz Process there are fourteen principles that form a continuum that progresses linearly from the most fundamental principles to the more advanced:


These fourteen principles are effectively divided into four groups:

  • Working: Five principles support individuals working within a team.
  • Collaborating: Four principles enable a team to work in synergy so that their combined efforts produce more value than the sum of their individual efforts.
  • Executing: Three principles ensure successful execution.
  • Innovating: Two principles facilitate creativity and its application to delivering solutions.

I am often asked why innovating is the final step and why it is only supported by two principles. Isn’t innovation the single most important goal and a critical measure of success? Innovation is certainly important. It enables a team to produce a unique offering that can differentiate them from their competitors. However innovation is not the only way to be successful. In many cases simply delivering a higher quality offering and/or delivering it faster than anyone else is enough to lead the field. If you can come up with something unique but can’t get it delivered quickly enough, you may have lost whatever opportunity you had to capture customers. More important, if the quality sucks it may cost you more than you can imagine. A few months ago if I had Googled “Toyota quality” the top hit would have been something like this Wikipedia entry which describes the importance of quality in Toyota’s manufacturing methods. Instead the top link is now “Toyota Chief admits quality lapses,” one of many news articles about Toyota’s recent woes. Quality stands out as the most significant management imperative of the 20th century, beginning in the 1920s when Walter Shewhart applied statistical theory to quality control. His principles lived on in the work of W. Edwards Deming, who along with quality gurus such as Joseph Juran and Kaoru Ishikawa, established a mid-20th century quality movement in Japan that birthed concepts such as Total Quality Management, Total Quality Control and Kaizen. Some argue that the quality movement has faded, but its demise is greatly overstated, and the quest for quality continues to live on in standards such as Six Sigma and ISO 9000. More significantly, quality management is no longer limited to manufacturing but has been adopted by domains such as government services, healthcare, education and environmental management.

The reality is that you can’t have innovation without successful execution and you can’t have that without successful collaboration and that in turn is dependent on basic working productivity. The mistake that almost every novice jazz musician makes is in trying to base their improvisations on fancy, innovative melodic, harmonic and/or rhythmic elements when they don’t even have the basics firmly within their grasp. The first thing one must do is work on playing in tune and in time with a strong groove. The budding jazz musician must develop technical proficiency but this is not necessarily so they can play fancy riffs but primarily to allow them to increase their situational and group awareness. One of the most important skills of highly effective people is their ability to allocate a sizable portion of their personal bandwidth to collaboration. Think about the work related tasks at which you are most proficient. Chances are you can do some of those things on autopilot, allowing you to simultaneously perform another task or even two. Or perhaps you can easily complete these tasks in less time than it would take someone without your level of proficiency. We each have limited cycles but the more proficient we are at the routine tasks the more aware we can be of our surroundings. Imagine a drummer who has to think constantly about where to place his or her limbs, how to hold the sticks, which drums to hit and how to co-ordinate both arms and legs. A person doing all that will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to maintain awareness of what is going on with the other musicians, the audience and the combined sound. Now imagine a drummer for whom playing is a routine exercise. He or she can perform all the necessary fundamentals and still have sufficient personal bandwidth to monitor everything else that is happening, communicate with the other musicians, respond to changes and engage in interplay. If you’re not even aware of what’s going on around you, how can you collaborate effectivelyand ensure that what you do is aligned with and not in conflict with the efforts of your colleagues?

People talk about innovation all the time but many of them should be thinking about more fundamental things. The reality is that execution is extremely difficult and a lot of people, while they can talk and plan and theorize about doing fancy stuff, have a lot of trouble just getting a solid offering delivered at the right time. An often quoted adage is that you should “learn to crawl before you walk.” In the same way you should learn to execute before you innovate. However walking is probably only equivalent to simply executing. Dancing would be innovating. However that’s for another discussion.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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