Why Ideas are 'Cheap' or Execution is everything

"Genius is 1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration": Thomas Alva Edison


Ideas cost very little to generate and without substantial additional effort, come
to nothing.
But new ideas are the only starting point for new things - so which is more important, coming up with the idea or making it concrete?
Both are necessary and as important as one another - without the other, neither will lead anywhere.

Criticism of others ideas without substantial evidence,proof, counter example or working demonstration is churlish.

"Put up or Shut up" is a reasonable maxim for critiquing ideas.
Ideas only take real form and viability if they are the subject of robust and probing debate and defence. It is better to fail early, amongst friends, than publicly and spectacularly.
It's easy to confuse a profusion of ideas with "invention".
The marker of "usefulness" is the follow-through from ideation to implementation.


There have been a number of world class research institutions where the notion "Ideas are cheap" has been an espoused mantra - Xerox PARC and Bell Labs are personally known to me.

But what does that mean? That "Ideas" are worthless?

No - far from it. "Ideas" are the starting point of everything new and improved. "Ideas" are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the full-fledged innovation of new, useful 'things'.

Why Ideas are 'Cheap'

From the Net:

Thomas Edison is credited with two similar quotes, Einstein is sometimes given credit for the genius quote:
"Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration."
"Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration."

and also:
"There is no substitute for hard work."

Canadian Dave Pollard, ex-Global Director of Knowledge Innovation (or Chief Knowledge Officer)
Ernst & Young, says:

We are all by nature inventive, and ideas are cheap. The real challenge is innovation, bringing a great invention or idea to commercial fruition. It is the application of the idea that takes true genius, hard work, patience, timing, and often good luck and good connections. It is what separates the millionaire entrepreneur from the pauper inventor.

If you've ever had one idea, you can have more... It's not hard dreaming up
variations on a theme or combining existing ideas in novel ways...

Trusting that you will come up with another 'good idea' can take a while to learn and be harrowing in the seemingly endless 'dry' periods.

Trust in yourself and your abilities, sits alongside "Determination" and "Persistence" as the requirements of any good innovator. It is a learnt skill. And like any skill, the more practice you have, the better you are at it - and the more variations of it you have available.

Our brains are excellent at solving problems - it is one of the things Homo Sapien excels at. And what defines "Homo Sapien" from previous species is our rate of innovation - we've come up with novel,useful advances at a stunning and increasing rate for 30,000 years or more.

The hard part - putting in the hours.

Look at the ratio of work between levels in the sequence:


research - lookup

research - investigate or create

write paper, publish



pilot production

full production and marketing

evolution/updating product

Each of these steps is about 10 times more effort, work or costly than the previous one.

Ideas are "cheap" in the sense that they cost very little to produce and very little effort to espouse. Taking them further requires real effort, determination and persistence...  The critical difference between "invention" and "innovation" (thinking and doing).

More than one notable academic has had just one "good idea" in their lifetime - and sometimes that was even given/suggested to them by someone-else. But they deserve credit and recognition for doing the hard yards by bringing an idea into concrete usefulness.

Why you shouldn't be too 'Wed' to your ideas

If you've had one good idea, why won't you have more?

There is no reason to believe your Brain/Mind won't deliver you more Good Ideas than you can use - if you have the sense to ask it and the courage to cultivate it. And are looking for them.

Ideas are uncomfortable, challenging and a nuisance.

Look at Babbage and his "Analytical Engine" - he kept thinking of "better, cheaper, faster" ways to do the same thing - and in the end he failed to produce any working thing [but was shown to be right this century when one of his designs was built and worked as predicted, modulo a few minor design issues.]

It's an Art generating lots of ideas - but a greater art in selecting the Good Ones and converting them into useful research, programs or prototypes.

And perhaps also it's a personality or psychological trait that predisposes some people to ideation, innovation, refining or finishing.

The Margerison-McCann Team Management Wheel offers statistically proven evidence of population capability differences.

Robert E. Kelley's 1998 book "How to be a Star at Work" is based on the data reported by Bell Labs that there are people who radically outperfom others (i.e. their output is measurably higher). How much? Kelley is a bit coy on this - perhaps 4 times, perhaps 10 times... But that would presume you have benchmark outputs of 'normal' performance.


"Ideas are Cheap" is a shorthand way of saying:

It's far easier to come up with an idea than it is to translate it into something concrete and useful - and getting it produced and marketed is a bigger step again.

Yes, it is a genuine skill generating ideas - but just like in a journey, starting out is usually the easiest part.

Lauding people for "great ideas" is counter-productive - it encourages them to stop there... Probably blocking them from arriving at much better ideas as they arise during the development phase.

Our society and culture is based on a huge number of "good ideas" that have been refined and developed over Milena.

"Standing on the shoulders" of earlier, great minds is a given. Truly
new ideas are exceedingly scarce.

No comments: