Ideas Are Easy, Execution Is Hard

By Wythe Walker

Management 101 Series


Everyone likes ideas. Daydreaming is fun and stimulating. The routine can be rewarding, but often boring. But, here’s the catch: Launching the new product is the hardest thing of allif the launch is to be successful.

In fact, here are two simple, universal rules of good management that are worth remembering.

First, the primary challenge of management is to take a new successful idea launched by your most creative people and figure out how to turn it into routine tasks that can be profitably run by ordinary workers.
Second, make sure you launch your new idea with your best workers because they’re going to need to be the best. Fleshing out the new idea will require a wide variety of skills, adaptations, unexpected twists and turns, persistence, realistic vision, and dogged optimism and energy.

Every experienced business person can tell you stories of great ideas that initially failed because the people in charge didn’t have the skills, support, or time to implement the ideas and the overall effort was a waste.

Here are three examples.

In 2000, I was talking to Frank Batten, one of the founders of The Weather Channel. At that point, The Weather Channel was hugely popular and profitable with business travelers as well as homeowners. Batten had conceived the idea, launched it across the country, but local and national advertisers weren’t buying it. He couldn’t understand why. But, he refused to give up.

Hitting the road with one of his top salespeople, he canvassed the country talking one local market after another into placing their advertising on The Weather Channel. After nearly a year of effort, a preliminary advertising base was established and, over time, the product took off. By the time I met Batten, The Weather Channel had become the flagship product of Landmark Media Enterprises, one of the two biggest privately held media companies in America.

I ran into a similar situation when I traveled to New Mexico to turn around a failing business newspaper, The New Mexico Business Weekly. Launched a few years before, the paper was within weeks of closing and laying off its small staff of 15. When I read the product, interviewed the employees, researched the community, it was easy to understand what was missing: a concentrated, consistent sales effort directed at the right advertising base. The founders of the paper didn’t understand that with a product like that the first three to five years of sales had to be highly focused to build the momentum and establish the product firmly in the business community. Once the business journal was successfully branded in the community, then, the sales effort could be less aggressive. But, not now.

With the addition of two new salespeople, and some reordering of the sales incentives and expectations, within six months the publication’s bottom line was back in the black. Three years later, the owner decided to change careers and he and I successfully sold the business paper to a national chain, American City Business Journals based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where it remains.

My last example is one closest to home. I frequently say I’ve made every mistake you can make in the publishing business. After twenty years of full-time work and consulting, I believe I have. And tried to learn from them. So this mistake we’re talking about…not having your best people on a new project...I’ve made it, too. More than once. Here’s an example...

In my seven years as publisher of Arkansas Business, I was always looking for ways to improve existing products. One of our most popular and useful publications was the annual Book of Lists. A terrific compilation of the 50 or so lists we created each year, distributed week by week, bundled together. I had a great researcher who pulled the lists together and I packed the annual book with all sorts of useful information. I had a separate sales staff I had created that sold just ‘special publications’ (I had about 8 or 9 in various niches, that were steadily growing) and a sales manager for that division.

Surprisingly, as I was ramping this division up, a problem occurred with sales in the Book of Lists. They were flat, despite all the extra lists I had added, the extra information, and features. When I asked the sales staff why they told me the advertisers they called on all liked the publication, all used it throughout the year, but they wondered why there were so few ads in the publication. Why weren’t others buying it? Ah! A surprising problem, but true. I realized the sales manager and the staff had lost confidence in the product as it had evolved and didn’t understand how to counter the objections they were hearing.

Fortunately, it was an easy problem to correct. I borrowed a videotape from a fellow publisher that had some great upselling techniques for Book of Lists advertisers (special placement positions, limiting ad sizes to ¼ page and up, advertorials tied to lists, etc.). I helped train the staff and went out with them on a number of calls. The results were excellent; we increased our sales in one year by nearly 200% and, most importantly, firmly established the Book of Lists as an essential marketing purchase for our clients. At that point, my sales manager and staff were able to handle everything just fine.

To review: Management rules of thumb are easy to grasp as concepts. Executing them properly is hard. Ideas are easy, implementation is difficult. New businesses pop up all the time and fail as regularly because successful owners are a combination of dreamers, managers, doers.

Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos—those are some special folks.