A Case For Fewer Ideas and Better Execution

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Most creative projects are abandoned half-baked. Some projects are killed for good reason, but most are surrendered to the obstacles that get in the way of execution.

I have always been frustrated by the fact that, in creative industries, there is a lot of talk about creativity but very little focus on the mechanics for making ideas happen.

It is a sad truth that most ideas never happen. No doubt, we all suffer as a result. When ideas DO happen, it's not because they're great or by accident.

Thomas Edison once quipped that "genius in 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." The problem in the world of innovation and entrepreneurship is that we get obsessed with inspiration - the 1% - and we seldom talk about what's involved with the other 99%.

The other 99% is not so sexy. It involves how you organize projects, how you manage your workflow, and how you lead teams. The 99% also relates to your sense of self-discipline and tolerance for ambiguity.

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to write a book about the 99%. It provided the rare chance to interview such prolific creative minds - people like RISD president John Maeda, IDEO partner Diego Rodriguez, Google Creative Director Ji Lee, and hundreds of other productive designers, authors, and entrepreneurs who consistently make ideas happen. There are common obstacles we all face in our creative lives. Throughout the research, I was struck by the similarities in the methods and tips I observed among especially productive individuals and teams.

Here are a few of these obstacles and how you can overcome them.

Reactionary Workflow

We live in a connected world of endless emails, texts, tweets, messages on social networks, phone calls, instant messages...the list goes on. Rather than be proactive with our energy, we have become reactive - living at the mercy of the last incoming thing. As a result, we spend all of our energy trying to keep up rather than propelling our ideas forward. Eventually, all of the small inconsequential activity wears us down and we're liable to jump ship. To avoid reactionary workflow, some people schedule "windows of non-stimulation" in their day. For a 2-3 hour period of time, they minimize their email and all other sources of incoming communication. With this time, they focus on a list of goals - not their regular tasks, but long-term items that require research and deep thought. There are other tricks for how you aggregate messages and reduce "hop time" (the time spent transitioning between sources of communication). But the bottom line is that reactionary workflow is a threat to ingenuity. To combat it, we must focus less on ideas themselves and more on how we manage our energy and ultimately push ideas to completion.

Insecurity Work

In the era of Google Analytics and twitter, we spend too much time obsessing over real-time data. Just a decade ago, we had to wait for weekly and monthly reports for information that is now always available at our finger tips. Whether it is checking your site's traffic, customer sentiment, or your bank account, these small repetitive actions don't help you make ideas happen. They just help you feel safe. "Insecurity Work" is stuff that you do that (1) has no intended outcome, (2) does not move the ball forward in any way, and (3) is quick enough that you can do it multiple times a day without realizing - but, nonetheless, puts us at ease. The first step for reducing Insecurity Work is self-awareness. During the research for my new book, I was astonished by the spectrum of self-imposed guidelines and very effective rituals that people use to reduce insecurity work. Insecurity work is yet another workplace phenomenon that can reduce productivity and obstruct great execution.

Idea-To-Idea Syndrome

There is a natural "high" that we all experience at the start of a new project. A new idea engages our senses and provides enough energy to break the seal of hesitation and get started. However, execution becomes more difficult as we become tired and overwhelmed by the doldrums of project management. To escape the pain (and reclaim that natural high), we generate a new idea and abandon the one we were working on. This process repeats itself and helps us understand why most ideas never happen. Idea-to-idea syndrome can only be conquered by short-circuiting the old-school reward system that governs our actions. The routine of studying for a good grade in grade school and then working for a paycheck on the job made us reliant on short-term rewards that simply don't exist in the early stages of bold entrepreneurial endeavors. Many of the creative leaders I have interviewed over the years have found ways to tweak rewards - whether through the power of milestones, play, or happiness - for themselves and their teams.

Let's focus less on ideas and more on making ideas happen. We talk a lot about innovation but tend to ignore the giant obstacles that we face in the course of making ideas happen. We need to become better leaders of our ideas. Our future depends on it.

My book out this month, entitled Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision and Reality chronicles the methods of the creative leaders that have pushed their ideas to fruition (and make our lives interesting as a result). My hope is that the book will prompt more discussion on the mechanics for pushing ideas to fruition.

About Scott Belsky
Scott Belsky studies exceptionally productive people and teams in the creative world. He is the Founder and CEO of Behance, oversees The 99% think tank, and is the author of Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision & Reality (Portfolio, April 2010).

More info and early reviews on Making Ideas Happen

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