Execution is the 80% of Success

The Pareto principle states that for many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes (the “vital few”).


In 2017, the DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) released Justice League, a live-action film nominally directed by Zach Snyder but in reality the vision of Joss Whedon, who was brought in by Warner Brothers (WB) to finish the film after Snyder had to bow out due to a family tragedy. Or so the story went.

In reality, Warner Brothers was most likely disappointed that 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice had failed to hit the $1 billion dollar mark at the box office. Snyder’s version of DC’s heroes was deemed as just too dark for mainstream audiences, and WB was looking to tap into the popularity of Marvel Comics’ “Marvel Cinematic Universe” or MCU by imitating the MCU’s formula of light-hearted action movies that are largely hailed by both audiences and critics as enjoyable, if not often forgettable, entertainment.

However, things didn’t work out as WB hoped. Justice League was panned by critics and audiences alike, and a film featuring an all-star cast and arguably three of the most-popular – if not most-iconic – superheroes of all time failed to crack the $700 million mark at the worldwide box office. By any metric, Justice League was a flop.

Fast forward to 2021. After a years-long campaign by fans to get Zach Snyder’s version of Justice League (dubbed “The Snyder Cut”) released, Zach Snyder’s Justice League (ZSJL) debuted on HBO Max on March 18, 2021. Unfortunately, since ZSJL was released at the tail-end of the COVID-19 pandemic when many movie theaters had yet to re-open and many people were still uncomfortable attending theaters, ZSJL was never released theatrically, so we can’t compare the box office of ZSJL to that of 2017’s Justice League. However, we can compare critical and audience receptions of the two (as of 2021-07-09):

IMDB RatingRotten Tomatoes Critic ScoreRotten Tomatoes Audience Score
Justice League (2017)6.1 / 1040% liked69% liked
Zach Snyder’s Justice League8.1 / 1071% liked91% liked
Zach Snyder’s Justice League vs. Justice League (2017)+2 higher overall rating+31% more liked by critics22% more liked by audiences

By every metric above, ZSJL trounces Justice League 2017. It’s not even close.

The above is even more puzzling when one considers that Justice League 2017 and ZSJL share about 1 hour of footage. Since Justice League 2017‘s official runtime is 1 hour 59 minutes, this means it shares roughly half of its footage with ZSJL. So what gives? How can a movie be comprised of roughly half the footage of another, better-reviewed movie yet be panned while the other movie it draws from be liked by critics and beloved by audiences?

Some may object, saying that ZSJL’s runtime of 4 hours gives it an advantage, but if you truly feel that making Justice League 2017 four hours long would fix its issues, then I guess you’re entitled to your opinion, but I highly doubt that. If anything, at roughly half the runtime, Justice League 2017 seems more bloated and meandering than ZSJL, but that’s all subjective. Let’s take the other approach – if you trimmed ZSJL down to 2 hours so it’s runtime became roughly equivalent to that of Justice League 2017, I’d wager that ZSJL would still be a better movie.

There are a multitude of reasons why ZSJL beats Justice League 2017 at any run time, but one of the biggest comes down to execution. These two movies share many of the same great ideas, awesome action, and beloved heroes, yet one of them just does it all better. ZSJL’s ideas are more coherent, it’s action and the plot align better, and its heroes are more nuanced and relatable.

This happens a lot in life. Take Google and Yahoo. Both started out as search engines and expanded into other arenas including email, news, and so forth, yet one of these businesses is one of the top companies in the world while the other is kind of a joke. Why is this the case?

Once again, there are numerous reasons, but it is safe to say that, in every way, Google has executed better than Yahoo! has. When compared to Yahoo’s offerings, Google’s search is faster and returns more relevant results, its email service is cleaner and more innovative, and the list goes on.

Thus, I’d say that when we consider success in light of the Pareto Principle:

80% of success is caused by or due to execution.

Ideas, financial backing, and other elements are an important 20%, but, unless they are executed well, a better-executing competitor can outstrip, outsmart, and outlast you.

In the world of professional software development, executing often means shipping code. Delivering features. Getting real code out into the world so it can start solving people’s problems. I like how The Mythical Man Month puts it:

The challenge and the mission are to find real solutions to real problems on actual schedules with available resources.

The Mythical Man Month

But it’s not enough to simply execute. After all, Yahoo had (has?) a search engine and email service that people actually used (use?), and Justice League 2017 was released in theaters and a lot of people went to see it. In other words, in both cases there was execution at some level. But we can see that it’s not enough to simply execute. No, one must execute and execute well, even perfectly.

So what constitutes execution that’s done well? I think the quote above summarizes it well:

Provide real solutions – Historically, Google search wins because it finds relevant results for searches. Yahoo’s results were never quite as good at being a “real solution” as Google’s search results are.

Solve real problems – So many average companies spend time building things no one really wants. Or that won’t really ever make money. Good execution addresses the real problem and doesn’t waste time on anything else.

Do it all on a scheduleAny restaurant that makes its patrons wait 4 hours for the food they ordered to show up at their table won’t stay in business, no matter how good the food is. Time is an inherent part of most problem definitions, and good execution makes time constraints explicit and performs within them as much as possible.

Execute using available resources – Businesses, governments, and families would always like more – more time, more money, more person-power. Good execution scrappily makes the most of whatever it can get a hold of in order to get the job done.

The vital few constitute the majority of the outcome.

When it comes to the outcome of success, that “vital few” is more about what you do with what you have (your execution) than what you actually have.

80% of success comes from execution that provides real solutions to real problems on a schedule and using available resources.

Go and show the world what it really means to execute. Success will follow.

2 thoughts on “Execution is the 80% of Success”

  1. Yes, to execute with limited resources means only one think: You are FORCED to use all your CREATIVE (!) power to reach a certain goal/target. It is funny, because I all my life struggle with unrealistic goals (be the best in High School, be the best at work, be one of the best or the best in my engineering degree (Business/Mechanical Engineering) and always had to realize that s.c. “learning” never satisfied me on a very primitive “you have to learn to have good grades, diplomas etc.”.

    The German brain researcher Prof. Dr. Hüther says it best: “There are no dumb or not gifted children or human beings, only the system including school/universities etc. dumb us down on a very basic brain level. We learn nothing truly important for life, bot only important for the system… There is nearly no developement of humans and their hearts in the system!”

    What I’m trying to say here: It is no important what you “have or don’t have”, your level of ethusiasm (Dr. Hüther says in German: “Begeisterung führt zu echten Lerneffekten im Gehirn!” = “Only true ethusiasm/passion leads to true learning effects on a basic level in the brain!”) is the only thing that counts! If your are passioned about something with your brain & heart (!!!), than your goals are pure, pro-humans, pro-nature, pro-life and pro-love (empathy!). In this case you will do the maximum with what you have and not complain about lack of “this or that” (“not enough time … not enough money … my computer is not fast enough … my colleagues are not smart enough for me … nothing is good enough for me!”).

    I used to produce music with my little laptop back in the days (as an engineering student in my free time). For 10 years I produced around 210-215 songs (like Enigma, Schiller etc.), with nearly nothing. I had no financial ressources to buy the best software (DAW, VSTi Plugins, VST Effects etc.), so I took a basic and simple package and began to improvise (PURE CREATIVITY!!!). I loved it, because I was forced to use my brain and heart, be very creative with what I had. On my first Youtube channel (2007-2014) I had some subscribers, some DJ downloaded my music for free and played it in the clubs.

    Because PASSION/ENTHUSIASM etc. lead to TRUE CREATIVE RESULTS. Instrinsic motivation comes from your heart (and never from numbers, fictional money etc.) and leads to true execution. You do what is good/best not only for you (never let your FALSE EGO dominate you!) but for everybody else…

  2. Just the one thing I needed to hear and do, after failing so hard in business i think this really what i was missing. Thank you for this great article.

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