Which is more valuable: Good ideas or good people?

Which is more valuable: Good ideas or good people? feature image

What is wrong with this picture?

“I have a great idea for a startup company”. How often do you hear this phrase? How many people have pitched their idea to you, in hope that you will put your efforts into their startup?

Traditionally, startups revolve around some million dollar idea, something disruptive and innovative that can make the world a better place. Yet pitch after pitch, it feels like there is something very wrong with this picture.

Although I’m a passionate supporter of innovation, something about these people’s approach felt way off. I couldn’t tell exactly what that was, until I stumbled upon a truly great read from Ed Catmull, co-founder (with Steve Jobs and John Lasseter) of Pixar Animation Studios.

Where do good ideas come from?

In his book, Creativity, Inc., Catmull tells an interesting story. During his talks he’d ask his audience the following question: “Which is more valuable: good ideas or good people?”. In other words, “Would you rather have a great team, or a great idea?”.

Interestingly enough, the responses were always split 50-50, with half of the people preferring the one over the other. And this was true for any type of audience, from executives to high school students.

Statisticians will tell you that having such a perfect split doesn’t mean that half know the right answer. It means that they are picking at random, they are guessing, as if they were flipping a coin.

After years of asking the same question, only one person in an audience had ever pointed out the false dilemma:

To me, the answer should be obvious: Ideas come from people. Therefore, people are more important than ideas. Why are we so confused about this?

Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully-formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them.

Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Catmull continues,

Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. But give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.


Strong ventures are built around strong teams

We already saw that getting the team right is the fundamental predecessor to getting the ideas right. I’m sure your common sense is tingling right now, but there’s more to the story.

Everybody wants talented people on their team, that’s something easy to say, but the real key is how these people interact with one another. Even the smartest people can form ineffective teams if they are mismatched.

Instead of focusing on the talents of individuals, it’s better focus on how a team is operating. Great teams are comprised of people who complement each other. That’s something that reinforces the point made above:

Getting the right people and the right chemistry is more important than getting the right idea.

When someone asks you to join a startup, they tend to focus solely on your talents, knowledge, and accomplishments listed in your resume, rather than on your character and values.

Needless to say that the same approach is followed for forming the rest of the team, which you can usually meet only after you have already agreed to join the venture.

What are the chances for that team to be something more than mediocre?

Beware of singular leaders

Apart from focusing on the wrong things while recruiting, these people have something else in common: they identify too closely with their idea. Naturally, every founder would prefer to be told that his or her idea is genius.

By identifying themselves too closely with their idea, they make themselves prone to taking offence when that idea is challenged, when revisions are needed or flows are apparent.

As previously discussed, great ideas are never formed in a vacuum. Also, most successful products are not a result of a single idea. In fact, they are comprised of a multitude of ideas, contributed by many different people.

In his book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries urges entrepreneurs to create a minimum viable product and use it as a subject of rapid experimentation in order to clarify whether their hypothesis or vision is true or not. Then, depending on the findings, they need to pivot or persevere, and repeat the whole process over and over again.

By examining any number of successful startups, we can confirm that suspicion; the final form of their product or service is quite different from its original conception.

Therefore, those who identify too closely with their idea are setting themselves - and their team - up for failure. Chances are that their egos make them blind to shifting dynamics and deaf to meaningful feedback. Everything that somehow opposes their original idea is either ignored or regarded as hostile.

Great ideas are never found in the genius mind of a singular leader who has the charisma, or brutality, to force his will into existence.

Final thoughts and references

John Sonmez, author of the best-seller Soft Skills: The software developer’s life manual, has published a YouTube video called Why Your Million Dollar Idea Is Worthless, where he argues that execution is more important than the idea. John is right, as execution highly depends on the team behind it.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, captures the essence of this article in a hilarious comic strip.

Bjarne Stroustrup, creator of the C++ programming language, once said: “Design and programming are human activities; forget that and all is lost”.

To reiterate, next time you are approached by someone to work on their idea, take note on what their approaches and priorities are, and beware of those identifying too closely with their ideas.

Ideas come from people, therefore people are more important than ideas. It is the focus on people - their work habits, their values and talents - that is absolutely vital to any creative venture.

Anastasios Piotopoulos
Written by Anastasios Piotopoulos
Senior Software Engineer
M.Sc. in Software Engineering
  • Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

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  • The Lean Startup

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  • Soft Skills: The software developer's life manual

    Soft Skills: The software developer's life manual

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  • The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice

    The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment's Notice

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