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How to pin down worthy ideas

Jan 08 2012 10:31 *Ian Mann

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THE best ideas make the most money, right?

The sad truth is ideas that move industries forward are not the result of tremendous creative insight. Rather, it is the masterful execution of creative insights that wins – every time. The implications of this truth are the subject of author Scott Belsky’s Wall Street Journal bestseller for 2011.

The book describes the three forces that are necessary to make ideas happen: organisation and execution, leveraging communal forces, and leadership in the creative pursuit.

Organisation is all about applying order to the elements of a creative project that allows for execution. I know that nothing makes me dump a book faster than an author describing the “most effective way” you can motivate yourself, improve yourself or organise yourself.

There is no "most effective way” – there is only the highly idiosyncratic way that works best for you. Belsky is far too smart to talk of the most effective way; instead, he provides a simple and practical format that will work with your own most effective technique.

The best methods for managing creative projects are simple and intuitive. They help you capture your ideas and do something about them – no more, no less. The “action method” Belsky describes begins with a simple premise: everything is a project.

Every project can be reduced to these three primary components: action steps, references, and backburner items. All of these need to be captured in any way that works for you.

“Action steps” are specific things you must do to move an idea forward, and must be captured in writing starting with a verb – “Call Linda to get information on…”. Ideas don't reveal themselves only in meetings and neither should action steps.

You will require some means to capture action steps anywhere, any time. You can use your phone or a notebook - anything  that is always with you.

“References” are pieces of information worth storing, not revering. Most people never refer to the piles of notes they keep anyway. All you need to concern yourself with is how you should identify a reference so that you can intuitively find it later.

“Backburner” items are ideas for another time, not now. You will need to periodically revisit and curate your backburner.

While creative people need to be optimistic about the future, they need to be pessimistic about tasks. You should be deeply concerned with how to manage your ideas and projects. Waiting builds apathy and increases the likelihood that another idea will capture your fancy and energy before you have completed the execution of the previous one.

Traditional practices such as writing a business plan – ultimately a static document that will inevitably be changed as unforeseen circumstances arise – must be weighed against the benefits of just starting to take incremental action on your ideas.

Proof comes with Apple, the company known for new ideas and the ability to think differently, which must also be one of the most organised companies on the planet.

So the formula reads: creativity x organisation = impact.

If the first force for making ideas happen is organisation and execution, the second is leveraging communal forces. The notion of the lone creative genius might have existed in the past, but there can be no doubt that it is wildly outdated in the 21st Century.

Your community is all around you – your team, mentors, clients or customers, collaborators, and of course your family and friends. Your community will seldom understand the idea in the beginning, but they will help make it real in the end.

Consider one aspect of your community, your peer group. Three broad categories of creators were found in Belsky’s research: the dreamers, the doers, and the polymaths whom he calls incrementalists.

As entrepreneurs, dreamers often jump from one new business idea to another and are likely to become engaged in new projects at the expense of completing current ones. The dreamers are more likely than anyone to conceive brilliant solutions, but they are less likely to follow through.

Some of the most successful dreamers attribute their success to a partnership with a doer.

Doers don't imagine as much because they are obsessively focused on the logistics of execution. Doers often love new ideas, but their tendency is to immerse themselves in the next steps needed to truly actualise the idea. While dreamers will quickly fall in love with an idea, doers doubt and chip away at the idea until they love it or, as often, discount it.

Then there are the incrementalists – those with the ability to play the role of both dreamer and doer.

Incrementalists are able to bask in idea generation, distil the action steps needed, and then put ideas into action with tenacity. However, incrementalists have the tendency to conceive and execute too many ideas simply because they can. Incrementalist are the O blood type of the world of collaboration – the universal donor.

In the Apple leadership one could call Jonathan Ive (chief designer), Tim Cook (chief operating officer) and the late Steve Jobs (chief executive officer) the dreamer, the doer, and the incrementalist respectively. A similar structure exists in the fashion house, Calvin Klein.

Walt Disney, known for his boundless creativity not his scepticism, went to great lengths to ensure that his community, his creative team, reviewed ideas ruthlessly and killed them when necessary.

Wired magazine's editor-in-chief Chris Anderson said: "I don't believe you can do anything by yourself; any project that is run by a single person is destined to fail."

The last of the three forces that make ideas happen is the specific type of leadership required for creative pursuits. Leadership capability is what makes the pursuit of an idea sustainable, scalable, and ultimately successful.

An example of a leadership challenge is how to deal with the problem posed by the timeframe of great ideas. Your long-term vision is not going to be enough to sustain the followers you need so badly.

How people spend their energy is greatly influenced by the short-term reward systems that permeate our lives. Belsky both raises and offers suggestions for creative leadership challenges like this one.

“Leadership capability” relates both to your leadership of others and your ability to lead yourself. Everyone has tendencies that can become obstacles in the execution of the creative project. An example: the challenge is to capitalise on feedback, but if feedback is so readily available around us and so crucial to making ideas happen, why is there so little focus on it?

Though the value is high, the incentive to give feedback to others is low, and the natural desire to hear it is often non-existent.

How you lead yourself separates the winners from the rest.

Execution, community and leadership are worthy of serious consideration at the start of 2012 to give us the best chances of realising our best ideas. This book is a must-read for anyone who has great ideas that aren’t yet hitting the bottom line, or has partners or subordinates with the same tendency.

It is rich in insights and its suggestions are practical.

Readability:    Light ---+- Serious

Insights:        High -+--- Low

Practical:       High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy. 

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