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Good execution is more valuable than great creative

Chasing brilliance jeopardizes projects more than it should


Good execution sounds rather boring, until a deadline rolls around and your creative project is still not done and parts of it are really good and others haven’t even been considered and oh my god, this is stressful.

Earlier in my career, I would ask myself, “What is the most I can accomplish within the budget available to me?” How far could I stretch each dollar? Could I, through sheer will and determination, melt that dollar into something like warm cheese and stretch it even further than its physical properties would permit? The smaller the budget the grander my plans seemed to become. Every project could be a little Taj Mahal. Expecting anything less was defeat.


A grand idea, but at what cost?

Let me suggest that for the vast majority of creative projects, happening every day, all over the world, the mere act of delivering solidly executed, but not necessarily “creative” work, on time and within the original budget will be far more valuable to a company than dying on the altar of creativity to deliver work that is great in places and underdeveloped or inconsistent in others.

Let me also suggest that it is more courageous for a creative to commit to the absolute minimum that they are wholly confident they can do well, than it is to pitch a creative concept that, while theoretically awesome, relies mostly on enthusiasm and imagination to be accepted as plausible. If you have been involved in a project that began as ambitious and then, over time, was whittled down to a point you would have never accepted at the outset, you may be familiar with what I’m talking about.

The whittling forces are reality's ever-present vibrations: things need to get done at a certain point, resources are limited, people will be unavailable or incapable at crucial times, events will not unfold predictably, formerly strong commitments will waver, the money will run out, requirements will change, opinions will change.  These aren’t excuses. They’re facts of all life.

Not taking these vibrations into adequate consideration and instead risking a project’s success in pursuit of “something greater” is one of the many ways creatives inflate their own value, while simultaneously injecting unnecessary risk into a project that doesn’t need it. Perhaps we would all like to see ourselves working in the highest echelons of our profession, where one idea can change everything, but I just don’t see many spaces where the margins of success are that thin.

There is always the unwavering confidence that you will find a way to make it work. This is especially common in very talented, very capable people who believe they can commit the requisite number of all-nighters to see a complicated project through. This can work; in fact, it works all the time (ask anyone who works at an ad agency). But sometimes it doesn’t and you get caught. Time is up and you can’t deliver what you promised. Working independently only heightens the risk of such an outcome which, in my eyes, is catastrophic.

What is your responsibility?

Most businesses are run as investments. Maximize upside, minimize downside. If you are a creative working for a business run as an investment, the best service you can provide is to develop ideas that do the same. The glamour will always be in the upside, but managing the downside will more often determine if a business keeps its doors open.

In every new project, especially for new clients, but also with current ones, I struggle constantly: do I pursue a grand vision, full of hope and possibilities, or something smaller, acknowledging my own limitations in the process? Committing to a narrow scope makes it harder to sell work and it’s inevitably less inspiring to a creative mind. But that’s just the point. What are your motivations anyway? Are your motivations to help the company that hires you to the best of your ability, using all the tools available? Or are your motivations to have your own creative agenda bankrolled by your client or employer? This isn’t often easy to decipher, as your own vision, if executed, may very well have a higher upside for you and the company. And also, your vision is what you were hired for, right? Your company wants your bold, ambitious ideas! But at what cost?

Work within constraints

When you first begin a project, it seems almost heretical to constrain all the idealism and enthusiasm that comes with a blank slate. At that early stage, constraints seem artificial and unnecessary anyway. You should be thinking big! Or should you? Every additional idea adds another element of complexity, one that could evolve into something great yes, but could just as easily become a rabbit hole that will need to be abandoned later in the project.

Ultimately, constraints yield the most sound ideas. Constraints most often come in the form of time and money, but just as important is scope! Your scope will, in large part, determine if you can work within all other constraints. Aim small, miss small.

And if you really want to test your creativity, tighten your constraints. As the head of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, once said, “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do. One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”