Making ideas happen – Scott Belsky (Book Summary)

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    THE ACTION METHOD: – Work and Life with a Bias Toward Action

    PRIORITIZATION: – Managing Your Energy Across Life’s Projects

    EXECUTION: – Always Moving the Ball Forward

    MENTAL LOYALTY: – Maintaining Attention and Resolve








    Appendix 1: – Tips for Practicing the Action Method
    Appendix 2: – The Purple Santa Experiment Appendix 3: – Overview of the Behance Network



    Making Ideas Happen

    IDEAS DON’T HAPPEN because they are great—or by accident. The misconception that great ideas inevitably lead to success has prevailed for too long. Whether you have the perfect solution for an everyday problem or a bold new concept for a creative masterpiece, you must transform vision into reality. Far from being some stroke of creative genius, this capacity to make ideas happen can be developed by anyone. You just need to modify your organizational habits, engage a broader community, and develop your leadership capability.

    This book aims to take pie-in-the-sky notions of how the creative process unfolds and bring them down to earth. Creative people are known for winging it: improvising and acting on intuition is, in some way, the haloed essence of what we do and who we are. However, when we closely analyze how the most successful and productive creatives, entrepreneurs, and businesspeople truly make ideas happen, it turns out that “having the idea” is just a small part of the process, perhaps only 1 percent of the journey.

    Thomas Edison once famously quipped, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” For the creative mind, inspiration comes easily. But what makes up the other 99 percent of making ideas happen? Read on for a surprisingly pragmatic set of insights and tips that have emerged from over six years spent studying the behaviors and skill sets of those who make their ideas happen again and again.


    Making Your Ideas Happen

    In the sections ahead, we will discuss the methods behind spectacular achievements —ideas that have overcome the odds and become realities. But before we do, here’s a primer on a few terms I use throughout the book and some assumptions I make about you (and your ideas)!

    You have ideas that you want to make happen. Whatever your business or industry, success is dependent on developing and executing new ideas. We’re not just talking about new products, new business ideas, or your vision for the next great American novel. You likely come up with creative solutions to problems every day. Unfortunately, regardless of how great your ideas may be, most of them will never happen. Most ideas get lost in what I call the “project plateau,” a period of intense execution where your natural creative tendencies turn against you. As a leader in your industry (and the leader of your life), you must learn to defy these tendencies.

    You can develop the capacity to make ideas happen. From years of researching creative individuals and teams, I will share the practices used to make ideas happen, time and time again.

    Making ideas happen = Ideas + Organization + Communal forces + Leadership capability. There is a framework for all of the insights and methods we will discuss. Aside from generating ideas (which we will not discuss), the capacity to make ideas happen is a combination of the forces of organization, community, and leadership. We will dive into each of these forces and discuss how you should use them in your own creative pursuits.

    Organization enables you to manage and ultimately execute your ideas. In the modern world of information overload and constant connectivity, you must manage your energy wisely. Otherwise, you will fall into a state of “reactionary work flow,” where you act impulsively (rather than proactively) and simply try to stay afloat. Everything in life should be approached as a project. Every project can be broken down into just three things: Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. The “Action Method,” which we will discuss in the first section of the book, is a composite of the best practices for productivity shared by creative leaders. The Action Method helps those of us with creative tendencies live and work with a bias toward action. With an understanding of this methodology, we will delve deeply into prioritization, managing your energy and attention, and fully executing your ideas.

    The forces of community are invaluable and readily available. Ideas don’t happen in isolation. You must embrace opportunities to broadcast and then refine your ideas through the energy of those around you. In the second section of this book, we will break down the communal forces that cause ideas to gain traction.

    Fruitful innovation requires a unique capacity to lead. Leading any sort of creative pursuit requires an overhaul of how we motivate others and ourselves. The most admired leaders are able to build and manage teams that can overcome the obstacles faced in creative projects. There is also a mind-set we must achieve to withstand (and capitalize on) the doubts and pressures we face along the way.

    While the tendency to generate ideas is rather natural, the path to making them happen is tumultuous. This book is intended to outfit you with the methods and insights that build your capacity to defy the odds and make your ideas happen


    Why Most Ideas Never Happen

    It is a shame that countless ideas with the potential to transform our lives—concepts for new drug discoveries, models for new businesses, inklings for musical masterpieces, sketches for iconic pieces of art—are conceived and squandered in the hands of creative geniuses every day. The ideas that move industries forward are not the result of tremendous creative insight but rather of masterful stewardship. Yes, there is a method to the madness of turning an idea into a reality—it’s just not as romantic as you thought.


    The Life and Death of Ideas

    Creativity is the catalyst for brilliant accomplishments, but it is also the greatest obstacle. If you examine the natural course of a new idea—from conception to execution —you’ll see that nearly all new ideas die a premature death. If that seems far-fetched, just consider the ideas that you have conceived on your own but never implemented: a novel you wanted to write, a business project you wanted to launch, a restaurant you wanted to open. For most of us the list goes on and on. New ideas face an uphill battle from the moment they are conceived.

    The cynics might suggest that the death of most ideas is actually a good thing. After all, from a day-to -day perspective, society appears to thrive on conformity. The status quo is the oil in the gears of society; it keeps us all happy and healthy. Even the companies that preach innovation still need to satisfy existing customers, meet their earnings targets, and keep the lights on. To a degree, the natural immune system that extinguishes new ideas in big companies is essential. After all, fresh ideas have the potential to take us off course; they are seldom economical (at first) and introduce tremendous risk to a finely tuned system. So it is with good reason that every new idea faces a battery of external obstacles before it even has a chance of materializing. Sadly, these obstacles don’t discriminate between good and bad ideas.

    Even more powerful than the obstacles around us, however, are the obstacles within us. The most potent forces that kill off new ideas are our own limitations. Time is very limited, and with the demands of family, friends, work, and sleep, most ideas lose traction immediately. If your idea survives the honeymoon period of excitement, it may still be forgotten because you are probably the only one who knows about it. Most ideas are born and lost in isolation.

    Even if you do possess the single-minded focus necessary to pursue a particular idea, your journey forward will be full of battles. Whether you work alone or with a team, you will become mired in the challenge of staying productive, accountable, and in control.


    The Creative’s Conundrum: At Odds with Our Very Essence

    The prospect of making ideas happen carries with it a special conundrum. The forces that help us be productive and execute our ideas are often at odds with the very source of our ideas: our creativity.

    To get a sense of what it’s like to live governed by our creative side, look no further than Chad and Risa—two people I met early on who suffered from many of the common ailments that plague creative people.

    A well-known production head at a top film studio was in despair as he told me about Chad, one of the most gifted screenwriters he had ever met. Chad spent his days and nights writing. He’d had a few decent films, but he had written many more misses than hits and cycled through more than a few agents. Chad checked his e-mail “every week or so.” Production executives and Chad’s close friends said the same thing: Chad is tough to get in touch with and is extremely disorganized. He is unable to stay on top of his ideas, some of which have the potential to fit into various projects.

    “Plot twists come and leave my mind every day,” Chad lamented to me.

    As I talked to him about his struggle to stay organized, Chad grew defensive. He reminded me that he was a writer, he loved his job, and that writing was what he does best.

    “Writing is chaos, and writing is my essence,” Chad proclaimed.

    But then Chad admitted wondering what benefits he might realize if he got his “stuff in order.”

    A new approach to organization made all the difference. Chad needed a system that would capture all of his fledgling ideas but also channel his energy toward the projects that required action. A self-proclaimed “technophobe,” Chad created a paper-based system that displayed the Action Steps for his most important projects in plain sight. He stopped living his life at the mercy of Post-it notes and trying to keep up with e-mail.


    The Forces That Make Ideas Happen

    This book is divided into three sections, each presenting a critical set of tools for making ideas happen: Organization and Execution, the Forces of Community, and Leadership Capability. Of course, there is also the idea itself—the catalyst. But, for the purposes of this book, I will leave the creative inspiration and ideas up to you.


    The capacity to make ideas happen is defined by the confluence of the three core components outlined in the equation shown here. Reaching your greatest potential requires mastering the intricate balance of all three forces at play—whether you are executing an idea on your own or working with a team.

    Let’s quickly discuss the relevance of the three components:

    Organization and execution. It is undeniable that your approach to productivity largely determines your creative output. The way you organize projects, prioritize, and manage your energy is arguably more important than the quality of the ideas you wish to pursue. There is nothing new in this assertion. The necessity of staying organized has been well-documented in innumerable books. Our thirst for a simple solution is evident in the huge success of methodology-oriented books and productivity blogs.

    Few, however, have explored organization and execution within the context of the creative mind, or within the context of our rapidly changing work environment. Creatives have always represented one of the most mobile groups in the workforce, and this trend of mobility is now extending to the business world at large.


    Leadership in creative pursuits. History is made by passionate, creative people and organizations with the rare ability to lead others—and themselves. Leadership capability is what makes the pursuit of an idea sustainable, scalable, and ultimately successful. Unfortunately, there is a huge void of leadership capability in the creative world, as evidenced by the high attrition and frequent management debacles across the creative industries. When employees quit a creative team, it is most often a result of an interpersonal conflict or not feeling engaged by the subject matter; it is rarely about

    money.1 To grow and sustain creative pursuits, you must be able to keep others engaged with your ideas.

    Leadership capability relates both to your leadership of others as well as to your ability to lead yourself. Perhaps some of the greatest hurdles in implementing ideas are personal deficiencies—common psychological barriers that creative minds often face when executing ideas. Very few of the famously prolific and productive creative people we discuss in this book are “naturals.” While the ideas might flow generously, the methods behind the capacity to make ideas happen are often counterintuitive. In some ways, the self-discipline and restraints necessary to execute an idea can feel like a tremendous compromise of your very essence as a creative person.

    I have come to call this notion the “creative’s compromise” because you must be prepared to adopt new restraints and best practices that—at first—feel uncomfortable. You will never need to compromise your morals or artistic integrity, but you will need to exert control over your destructive tendencies. Perhaps you have the tendency to jump from idea to idea to idea without ever following through on any particular one. Or maybe you have the tendency to incubate ideas privately. You might be avoiding feedback for fear of criticism, and when you do receive it, you may subconsciously find ways to discount it. Everyone with the gift of creativity has a series of tendencies that can become obstacles. The journey to a more productive life as a creative leader starts with a candid self-assessment of who you are, your tendencies, and the greatest barriers before you.


    A Final Note As We Begin

    Of course, even if you were to adopt all of the best practices in this book, making ideas happen will never be easy. Across the hundreds of interviews conducted during the research for this book, no individual or team I met was without frustration. Anything new inherently works against the grain. And working against the grain is uncomfortable. The aspiration you should have is to improve your approach. And the responsibility you should feel is to give your ideas a chance.

    This book is highly practical, filled with methods that have worked for others. Every tip and insight is kept short and actionable, so you can put this book to use right away and return to it as a resource when you face different challenges throughout your career. You will find some sections more mechanical than others. Keep in mind that execution isn’t pretty. However, your effort to develop the capacity to make ideas happen is a worthy investment. The best practices presented here are yours to digest, scrutinize, and modify as you see fit. My hope is that you take away a few crucial realizations that make all the difference.

    The conversation also continues online, where a network of thousands of creative people and teams, like you, are eager to push their ideas forward. As our research evolves online at our think tank ( and at the Behance Network (, I hope you’ll both learn from the material and become a contributor.

    Let’s get started!



    My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.

    —Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons

    IN A WORLD obsessed with innovation, it is easy to fall in love with ideas. The creativity quotient is the darling of the adventurous mind. For some of us, creativity is intoxicating. Our society has gone so far as to divide its members into two camps, the “left-brain people” and the “right-brain people,” under a radical (and arguably false) assumption that both parts of the brain cannot coexist effectively—that brilliant creative people are inherently unable to act as organizers and leaders. But they can. And when creative and organizational tendencies are able to coexist, society is pushed forward as remarkable ideas are actualized. The real problem is less about how society views creative people and more about how creative people view themselves.

    In 2007, Behance conducted a poll of over a thousand self-described “creative professionals,” asking them how organized they considered themselves to be. Only 7 percent of those who responded claimed to feel “very organized.” Double that number (14 percent) claimed to work in a state of “utter chaos,” and the largest group attested to “more mess than order” (48 percent). Upon further follow-up, I also observed that, far from being a point of concern, the disarray experienced by many of these professionals was regarded as a badge of honor!



    ORGANIZATION IS ALL about applying order to the many elements of a creative project. There are concepts you hope to retain, resources you want to utilize, and then the components of the project itself—stuff that needs to get done and other stuff that needs to be referred back to. There are also external elements like deadlines, budgets, clients, and other constraints. All of these elements combine (or collide) as you seek to create, develop, and execute ideas.

    These elements exist in any creative project, but we don’t always acknowledge them. Often we try to work around them (or ignore them). Of course, doing so decreases the odds that our ideas will ever happen.

    The most important, and most often neglected, organizational element is structure. We tend to shun structure as a way of protecting the free-flowing nature of ideas. But without structure, our ideas fail to build upon one another. Structure enables us to capture our ideas and arrange them in a way that helps us (and others) relate to them. Without structure, we can’t focus long enough on any particular idea to find its weaknesses. Ideas that should be killed will linger, and others that require development may be forgotten. Structure helps us achieve a tangible outcome from our ideas.

    Structure and organization are worthy of serious discussion because they provide a competitive advantage. Only through organization can we seize the benefits from bursts of creativity. If you develop the capacity to organize yourself and those around you, you can beat the odds.


    Your Approach to Organization and the Destiny of Your Ideas

    Supply chain management is a heavily logistical aspect of business that seldom attracts much fanfare. Companies like Wal-Mart and Toyota are legendary for how well they distribute and manage inventory. There is no debate that the mechanics of a company—especially its supply chain management practices—help determine the costs, quality, and availability of the product. There are consulting firms and executive-level positions within companies dedicated entirely to managing the supply chain—the embodiment of organization within a company. At the same time, many of us don’t really associate such tasks with creativity and ideas.

    Since 2004, AMR Research, a leading authority on supply chain research that serves numerous Fortune 500 companies, has published an annual list of the twenty-five companies with the best supply chain management. You might be surprised to learn that Apple debuted on the list at No. 2 in 2007, and overtook companies such as Anheuser-Busch, Wal-Mart, Procter & Gamble, and Toyota to take the No. 1 slot in 2008.

    Why would Apple, a company known for new ideas and its ability to “think different,” also be one of the most organized companies on the planet? The answer is that—like it or not—organization is a major force for making ideas happen.

    Organization is just as important as ideas when it comes to making an impact.

    Consider the following equation:


    If the impact of our ideas is, in fact, largely determined by our ability to stay organized, then we would observe that those with tons of creativity but little to no organization yield, on average, nothing. Let’s imagine a wildly creative but totally disorganized thinker; the equation would be:

    100 X 0 = 0

    Does this bring someone to mind? Someone who has loads of ideas but is so disorganized that no one particular idea is ever fully realized? You could argue that someone with half the creativity and just a little more organizational ability would make a great deal more impact:

    50 X 2 = 100

    The equation helps us understand why some “less-creative” artists might produce more work than their talented and inventive peers. A shocking and perhaps unfortunate realization emerges: someone with average creativity but stellar organizational skills will make a greater impact than the disorganized creative geniuses among us. I’ll ask you to reserve artistic judgment while we consider a few examples.

    If you have ever passed through a resort town in America (and, increasingly, abroad), you may have come across a storefront gallery for Thomas Kinkade, “Painter of Light.” Similarly, if you are an avid reader, air traveler, or subscriber to fiction book clubs, you have likely come across one of the many novels by James Patterson. Both Kinkade and Patterson are examples of creatives who have generated impressively large bodies of work. It is known that both Kinkade and Patterson employ many people to assist in the production and distribution of their work. In this regard, they are leaders of large enterprises. However, while Kinkade and Patterson have large fan bases, they are also consistently maligned by critics in their industries for being particularly unimaginative and productive to a fault.

    Patterson holds the New York Times Best Sellers record with thirty-nine best-selling titles. His Web site notes that in 2007, one out of every fifteen hardcover novels sold was a Patterson book. The author has sold over 150 million copies of his books worldwide. His abundant outreach campaigns include marketing programs such as the “James



    Work and Life with a Bias Toward Action

    WHEN BRAINSTORMING, WE generate ideas to solve problems—or conceive of something entirely new. Once an idea is posed, it is played with and expanded upon without limits. Each question and extrapolation gives rise to alternative and tangential ideas. An intoxicating creative exchange commences that often leads to unexpected places.

    But the harsh reality is that brainstorming sessions often yield disappointing results. Ideas with great potential fade from the participants’ minds with each additional idea thrown into the mix. Strong possibilities are trumped by alternative—not necessarily better—possibilities. Ultimately, we surrender to the clock, our take-away being either the last idea mentioned or the consensus idea—a watered -down version of an early idea that kept coming up again and again. We go back to our desks with a mishmash of notes and sketches, often with no sense of who should do what, what happens when, and what else needs to be researched or discussed before action can be taken.

    A surplus of ideas is as dangerous as a drought. The tendency to jump from idea to idea to idea spreads your energy horizontally rather than vertically. As a result, you’ll struggle to make progress. In a no-holds -barred session of blue-sky brainstorming, rampant idea exchange is exhilarating. But without some structure, you can become an addict of the brain-spinning indulgence of idea generation.

    Recognizing the tendency to bask in idea generation is the first step toward managing your energy to ensure a tangible outcome. While you may enjoy generating brilliant ideas and imagining new possibilities, you must approach every occasion of creativity with a dose of skepticism and a bias toward action. Brainstorming should start with a question and the goal of capturing something specific, relevant, and actionable. You should depart such sessions with more conviction than when you started.


    Reconsider How You Manage Projects

    The Action Method causes us to question many of the traditional practices of project management. Handling a project as some big and dense objective laid out by the higher-ups and distributed to the masses is no longer ideal. In the pursuit of making ideas happen, the traditional emphasis on planning and constant top-down communication is bulky and counterproductive.

    We have found that even within large bureaucratic companies with elaborate, formal project management systems, the most productive people run their own parallel processes to accomplish projects more flexibly. These homegrown systems share a common set of principles:

    A relentless bias toward action pushes ideas forward. Most ideas come and go while the matter of follow-up is left to chance. Next steps are often lost amidst a mishmash of notes and sketches, and typical creative tools like plain blank notebooks only contribute to the problem. For each idea, you must capture and highlight your “Action Steps.”

    Stuff that is actionable must be made personal. Putting one person in charge of managing next steps tends to not work. Making one person responsible for taking the notes and then sending them around to team members makes project responsibilities vague and impersonal. Each person needs to “own” their Action Steps. When tasks are written in your own handwriting, in your own idiom, they remain familiar and are more likely to be executed.

    Taking and organizing extensive notes aren’t worth the effort. We have found that notes are seldom used and can actually get in the way of capturing and following up on Action Steps. The process of excessive note taking actually interferes with the bias toward action that is necessary for a productive creative environment. If you simply capture and then tend to the actions required for a project, you are already way ahead of the game.


    Breaking Projects into Primary Elements

    If you know anything about magic, you know that the best tricks are the ones that are the most simple to perform. Levitation relies on pulleys, floating dollars need thread, and the disappearing coin depends on hidden pockets; all of the most remarkable tricks have the most “obvious” explanations. Similarly, the best methods for managing projects are simple and intuitive. They help you capture ideas and do something with them—no more, no less. This simple efficiency keeps you engaged and on task with as little effort as possible.

    The Action Method begins with a simple premise: everything is a project. This applies not only to the big presentation on Wednesday or the new campaign you’re preparing, but also to the stuff you do to advance your career (a “career development” project), or to employee development (each of your subordinates represents a single “project” in which you keep track of performance and the steps you plan to take to help him or her develop as an employee). Managing your finances is a project, as is doing your taxes or arranging the upcoming house move.

    Like most creative people, I’m sure you struggle to make progress in all of your projects, with the greatest challenge being the sheer number of projects before you! But once you have everything classified as a project, you can start breaking each one down into its primary components: Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.

    Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components. Action Steps are the specific, concrete tasks that inch you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc. References are any project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, Web sites, or ongoing discussions that you may want to refer back to. It is important to note that References are not actionable—they are simply there for reference when focusing on any particular project.


    Backburner Items —things that are not actionable now but may be someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it is something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen time in the future.

    Let’s consider a sample project for a client. Imagine a folder with that client’s name on it. Inside the folder you would have a lot of References—perhaps a copy of the contract, notes from meetings, and background information on the client. The Action Steps—the stuff you need to do—could be written as a list, attached to the front of the folder. And then, perhaps on a sheet stapled to the inside back cover of the folder, your Backburner list could keep track of the nonactionable ideas that come up while working on the project—the stuff you may want to do in the future.

    With this hypothetical folder in mind, you can imagine that the majority of your focus would be on the Action Steps visible on the front cover. These Action Steps are always in plain view. They catch your eye every time you glance at the project folder. And, as you review all of your project folders every day, what you’re really doing is just glancing over all of the pending Action Steps.

    We call it the “Action Method” because it helps us live and work with a bias toward action. The actionable aspects of every project pop out at us, and the other components are organized enough to provide peace of mind while not getting in the way of taking action.


    The Importance of Action Steps

    Action Steps are the most important components of projects—the oxygen for keeping projects alive. No Action Steps, no action, no results. The actual outcome of any idea is dependent on the Action Steps that are captured and then completed by you or delegated to someone else. Action Steps are to be revered and treated as sacred in any project.

    One action-obsessed leader I met during my research was Bob Greenberg, chairman of the world-renowned digital agency R/GA, which works with clients such as Nike and Johnson & Johnson. Greenberg is admired by his colleagues and industry peers alike. Among the traits used to describe Greenberg, “productive” and “compulsive” top the list.

    Greenberg has used the same morning ritual for managing his Action Steps every day since 1977. Using only certain types of pens and a certain type of notebook, Greenberg reserves time every day to process the day’s Action Steps and schedule.

    Greenberg shared with me that he uses two fountain pens (only Pelikan brand fountain pens)—a larger one with blue ink and a thinner one with brown ink—to write his Action Steps, and uses a high-lighter to place a series of diagonal strikes to the right of each Action Step to indicate priority. “Three marker strikes and a black dot mean most important,” he explained. He also sketches his schedule for every day on the top of the page with a pencil—and then, again with a pen, he writes the names of each major pitch that R/GA is working on that day.

    “I have a two-page system with multiple lists of actions,” he explained. “Starting from the left-hand side, I have stuff that I can have my assistant do, then—to the right of that list—I have stuff that I need to do personally. Then to the right of that . . .”

    As Greenberg continued, it became clear that he gained the most utility from the consistency and great sense of loyalty he felt for his quirky, home-brewed system.


    Maintaining a Backburner

    During brainstorming, in the midst of working on a project, or during a long night’s drive, you’re likely to conceive ideas that may not be actionable yet. For instance, you might think of some things you would do in a current project if only you had more time or a bigger budget. Or you might come up with vague ideas for new projects to consider in the future. Either way, you are liable to forget these ideas if you fail to capture them and develop a ritual for returning to them over time.

    You won’t want to record these thoughts as Action Steps because they are not yet actionable. And writing them down among your other Reference notes is not sufficient because you are unlikely to read old project References in the future. We call these ideas “Backburner Items”—stuff that isn’t actionable yet but may be someday (and is worthy of revisiting periodically).

    Sometimes these fledgling ideas are the best ones. Rumor has it that the melody of the hit song “Sweet Baby James” popped into songwriter James Taylor’s head during a long drive from New England to the Carolinas. For just such occasions, Taylor carried around a microrecorder that he used to capture little melodies or ideas he wanted to revisit. While driving, he reached for the recorder and quickly recited to himself the concept and melody—along with a note to toy with the song idea. It was apparently not until much later, when he listened to his recorded thoughts, that he wrote the song.

    We are humans, not machines. With our creativity comes the tendency to think of random ideas and actions we might want to take but not right at that time. Idea generation is often tangential to the active projects in our lives. But the fact that the timing is off does not mean that the thought isn’t worthy of future consideration.


    References Are Worth Storing, Not Revering

    The third and final component of every project is “References.” The tendency to take notes, make sketches, and compulsively save various types of handouts and reference materials is ingrained from our early days in elementary school. We were trained to write down everything we learned, relevant or not, and we often memorized everything we’d written for the big exam day.

    For many of us, this habit of recording and organizing everything has become a time-and space-consuming behavior with no real payoff. We take notes in meetings, we watch these notes accumulate in a pile on our desks along with other handouts and articles for reference, and then we eventually take the time to “file” them in some sort of elaborate system. To what end?

    Two of the greatest benefits of storing References with some sense of organization are simply the reduction of clutter and the peace of mind—even if we seldom refer back to them. Microsoft Research scientist Gordon Bell famously took Reference management to the extreme when he decided to log his entire life’s personal data —every e-mail, every phone conversation, every day’s face-to-face conversations (using a head-mounted video camera), and even his health-related data (via a heart-rate monitor).

    The recording of this data happened automatically, allowing Bell to proceed with his life knowing that everything was being documented. His experiment concluded with a massive archive of the Reference items of his life. His struggle, which he shares in his book Total Recall, was making sense of it all. One of the greatest benefits discovered by Bell was the liberation of his “meat-based memory,” allowing him to engage in more creativity and actionable stuff. By letting go of the static stuff that typically burdened his mind—and piled up around him—he became more productive. But the question remains for those of us who don’t have head-mounted video cameras and therefore must record and organize information manually: How much energy should we invest in capturing and organizing References?


    Feel the flow of References. You have an article, Web site, or note that might be valuable later on. Taking the following steps will make the Reference easily accessible when you need it.

    Question it. “What is the relevance? For what purpose would I refer back to this at some point?” If you can’t answer this question, throw the Reference out! Some people claim they must write things down to learn and understand concepts. This is fine, but consider discarding the notes and saving only the Action Steps. However, what if the item is important and must be saved for later on?

    Label it. Ask yourself, “How should I identify this Reference so I can intuitively find it later?” If you keep a chronological file, the label need only be the date. Otherwise, consider what project name is most appropriate.

    File it. If you’re using a paper-based system, place the Reference in the appropriate folder (or pile, if you are taking a chronological approach paired with your calendar). There are many great software and online applications that we have seen used across industries. For example, Evernote ( is a Web-based application that allows users to take snapshots or record quick text or voice messages and then store them by label (project name). Behance’s Action Method Online application also has a Reference manager that stores text and URLs by project. Other online document applications from Google, Apple, and others can also be used to store References organized by project.


    Practicing the Action Method

    The Action Method reduces project management to its most basic elements so that you can focus your energy on the important stuff, like actually completing tasks and making progress. The best way to get started is to look at a few of your current projects through the Action Method lens. Try to see each project as a collection of the three elements: Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References.

    Take a moment to consider two “projects” in your life right now: a personal project related to your family or home, and a work project. Think about the current Action Steps for each of these projects—the stuff that you need to do. Are these Action Steps dispersed throughout messages sitting in your e-mail in-box? A notebook or journal? Sketched on a napkin?

    Do you have any Backburner Items for these projects? What about References? Are they stacked around your office, or tucked away in files where you’ll never find them?

    Here are a few things to keep in mind:

    Actions Steps should be managed separate from e-mail. Have you ever found yourself rereading e-mails repeatedly, trying to distill the Action Steps when the time comes to actually do them? E-mail can kill productivity because the actionable information you receive is always clouded by Reference material. Your Action Steps become hidden within the e -mails and then gradually buried by other e-mails. For this reason, Action Steps should have a space (or system) of their own. We will discuss how to pair e-mail with a system for managing Action Steps in the section ahead.

    When it comes to taking action, work and personal life collide (and that’s okay). People tend to separate the actions they must take in their personal lives from those in their professional lives. While formal “to -do” lists and applications empower you at work, Post-it notes on your refrigerator keep you on task at home.


    Capture and Make Time for Processing

    As you move through your day of meetings, brainstorms, and other occasions of creativity, you will start to accumulate Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items. Handouts, random pages of notes, e -mails, and social network messages will build up all around you. Often these items will get buried in notebooks, pockets, online in-boxes, and computer files almost as soon as they are created or received.

    Ideally, in your written notes you will have kept your Action Steps separate from everything else. However, you will still need time for processing—going through all of your day’s notes and communications and distilling them down to the primary elements. For those who still take paper notes and appreciate tangible project management, you will want to use a tangible in-box—a general pile of stuff that has yet to be classified. Most productivity frameworks—like David Allen’s Getting Things Done—suggest such a central clearing-house for all of the stuff that you accumulate but can’t immediately execute or file. This in-box is not a final destination, but rather a transit terminal where items await processing. During a busy day of meetings, you will not have time to start taking action or filing things away.

    How about all of the digital stuff that flows in every day? Your e-mail in-box is the primary landing spot, but information also flows into other online applications. While your tangible in-box, sitting on your desk, is singular, the digital equivalent is becoming more of a collective. Ideally, you should set your settings in social networks to forward messages to your e-mail in-box for the sake of aggregation. When you commit time for processing, you’ll want to limit the number of places you need to visit. If you can’t aggregate the flow of e-mails and other digital communications in the same place, then you need to define the various pieces of your collective digital in-box. For example, my collective digital in-box includes my e -mail program (which receives messages from all other networks), a Twitter aggregator, and the in-box in my task management application (where I accept/reject stuff sent from my colleagues who use the same application—and then manage this information by project).


    Feel the flow of the Action Method. Every new day generates more ideas, notes, and communications that flow into your collective in-box. At periods of the day that you designate for processing, you break everything down into Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. You associate each item with a project, whether it is personal or work-related. As you are doing this, quick actions are being completed while longer-term Action Steps are being added to the appropriate project’s task list or your task management application—with a project name (and due date if necessary). Backburner Items are added to the appropriate folder or list. And Reference materials are either being discarded or stored by project or perhaps in a chronological file.



    Managing Your Energy Across Life’s Projects

    DYNAMIC CREATIVE PROJECTS—as well as cumbersome logistical projects —become more manageable when they are broken down into elements. Once we are able to approach our work (and life) as a series of Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References, we will have to decide where to start. We must prioritize because we can only focus on one Action Step at a time. Prioritization should help us maintain both incremental progress as well as momentum for our long-term objectives. Prioritization is a force that relies on sound judgment, self-discipline, and some helpful pressure from others.


    Keep an Eye on Your Energy Line

    I spent one afternoon a while back with Max Schorr, the publisher of GOOD , a monthly magazine focused on doing good, and his team. A group of true idealists, the staff found themselves constantly overburdened and overextended—striving to do everything while also striving for perfection. As Schorr put it, “At GOOD we hate to waste anything, and given our surplus of idea generation, the one thing we waste tons of is energy.”

    If you have lots of ideas, you probably have the tendency to get involved with or start lots of projects. Projects can require tremendous amounts of mental energy, from capturing and organizing the elements to actually applying your creative talents to solve problems and complete Action Steps. Energy is your most precious commodity. Regardless of who you are, you have only a finite amount of it. Just as a computer’s operating capacity is limited to the amount of memory (or RAM) installed, we all have our limits.


    Reconciling Urgent vs. Important

    While the Energy Line perspective can help us allocate our energy across projects, we are still bound to drift off course as soon as unexpected and urgent items arise. When something is urgent, we rush to do it. Even if it can wait—or is someone else’s job—our tendency is to hoard urgent items because they always seem more pressing than stuff associated with longer-term projects. As leaders of creative projects, we feel an impulse to solve everything quickly. I call this “Creator’s Immediacy”—an instinct to take care of every problem and operational task, no matter how large or small, as soon as it comes up, similar to a mother’s instinct for the care of a newborn baby. However, it becomes nearly impossible to pursue long -term goals when you are guided solely by the most recent e-mail in your in-box or call from a client.

    Fortunately, there are ways to manage the urgent stuff without compromising progress on long -term projects. The capacity to do so starts with compartmentalization, shared values, and the power of clarity.

    If you’ve ever used, an ATM, or a cell phone, then you’ve used technology developed and patented by Walker Digital. Primarily a research and development outfit, this seventy-person company has developed and successfully patented a variety of ideas across technological industries. As an intensely creative company, the Walker Digital team is constantly developing new ideas and is liable to suffer from Creator’s Immediacy. Nevertheless, the company’s leadership takes pride in its ability to operate efficiently on a daily basis while also innovating with the future in mind.

    At any given moment, half the company is dreaming up new ideas while the other half is managing and licensing the patented ones. In such an environment, one might expect the urgent operational needs of the business to quickly compromise the energy allocated to multiyear research projects. But they don’t. Walker Digital’s track record suggests that it has been able to maintain a focus on long-term projects despite the growing operational demands.


    There is too much focus on “fixing.” How can you maintain long-term objectives rather than suffer at the mercy of urgent tasks? It is called prioritization. And to prioritize, you must become more disciplined and use methods that prompt compartmentalization and focus.

    Here are some tips to consider:

    Keep two lists. When it comes to organizing your Action Steps of the day—and how your energy will be allocated—create two lists: one for urgent items and another for important ones. Long -term goals and priorities deserve a list of their own and should not compete against the urgent items that can easily consume your day. Once you have two lists, you can preserve different periods of time to focus on each.

    Choose five projects that matter most. Recognize that compromise is a necessity. Some people narrow their list of important items to just five specific things. Family is often one of the five, along with a few other specific projects or passions that require everyday attention. The most important aspect of this list is what’s not on it. When urgent matters come up, the “important” stuff you are working on that didn’t make your list should be dropped. You may be surprised to see how much energy you spend on off-list items!

    Make a daily “focus area.” About ten months after launching our online productivity application, Action Method Online, a user suggested to me that our team create a special “focus area” within the application to which you could drag up to five Action Steps—from any project—that you wanted to focus on today. This arrangement suggested that, regardless of whatever else cropped up that day, the focus area had to be cleared before you went to sleep at night. Keeping your focus list short makes it easier to constantly review throughout the day—to ensure that you focus on the more important items.

    Don’t dwell. When urgent matters arise, they tend to evoke anxiety. We dwell on the potential negative outcomes of all the challenges before us—even after action is taken. Worrying wastes time and distracts us from returning to the important stuff. When it comes to addressing urgent items, break them down into Action Steps and challenge yourself to reallocate your energy as soon as the Action Steps are completed.

    It is also helpful to consider whether or not certain concerns are within or beyond our influence. Often our worries are for the unknown and there is nothing more we can do to influence the outcome. Once you have taken action to resolve a problem, recognize that the outcome is no longer under your influence.

    Don’t hoard urgent items. Even when you delegate operational responsibilities to someone else, you may still find yourself hoarding urgent items as they arise. When you care so deeply about a project, you’ll want to resolve things yourself. Say an e-mail arrives from a client with a routine problem. Even though the responsibility may lie with someone else on your team, you might think, “Oh, this is really a quick fix; I’ll just take care of it.” And gradually your energy will start to shift away from long-term pursuits. Hoarding urgent items is one of the most damaging tendencies I’ve noticed in creative professionals who have encountered early success. When you are in the position to do so, challenge yourself to delegate urgent items.

    Create a Responsibility Grid. If you have a partner, you’ll want to divide and conquer various tasks for efficiency. Some teams create a “Responsibility Grid” to help them compartmentalize. This is also a tool that I used with co-heads of teams while working at Goldman Sachs. Across the top of the chart (the horizontal x-axis) you write the names of the people on the team. Then, down the left side of the page (the vertical y-axis), you write all of the common issues that come up in a typical week. Place a check in the grid for which team member (listed along the top) is responsible for which type of issue (along the side).

    For example, if you’re a small application-development team, your list of issues might include “inquiry for a sale or team discount,” “bug report from a user,” “report of lost data,” and “suggestion for a new feature.” As a team, you go through each person’s column and check the issues he or she is responsible for. Once completed and agreed upon, this chart sends an important message about who is (and, more important, who is not) allowed to respond to certain issues. The exercise in itself will help quench everyone’s impulse to do everything themselves and will streamline your team’s operations.

    Darwinian Prioritization

    Of course, we are not always equipped to manage our energy and determine urgent versus important on our own. Despite our attempts to compartmentalize, emotion and anxiety are likely to interfere with our judgment as we seek to prioritize actions and decisions. Those around us—our colleagues, clients, friends, and family—can add a positive natural force for prioritization if we are willing to channel it. I call this “Darwinian Prioritization” because it works through natural selection: the more we hear about things, the more likely we are to focus on them. Another less glamorous term for this process is “nagging.”

    Many teams rely on the natural force of nagging and peer pressure to better prioritize and allocate energy across projects. One such company is a New York-based creative agency called Brooklyn Brothers. The agency’s senior partners, Guy Barnett and Stephen Rutterford, manage a small but particularly prolific team that churns out work for clients as well as in-house entrepreneurial ventures that range from chocolate bars to children’s books.

    “We have lots of ideas . . . we are a factory of ideas . . . but we develop less than 10 percent of them,” Rutterford explained to me. After asking a battery of questions about their project management tools and creative process, I was surprised to learn that they were very hands-off with their team. Rather than use advanced project management systems, the team calls meetings only when needed (rather than having regularly scheduled check-ins). At one point during our discussion, Barnett leaned forward and explained, “Our secret in execution around here is really quite simple: nagging.” He went on: “We repeat stuff like robots a thousand times . . . . A best practice for us is to use nagging tempered by humor; we sit around a table and feel responsible to each other. . .



    Always Moving the Ball Forward

    Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.

    —Thomas Edison

    THOMAS EDISON’S FAMOUS quote rings especially true in the world of innovation. Execution, of course, is predominantly perspiration. Organizing each project’s elements, scheduling time, allocating energy, and then relentlessly completing Action Steps comprises the lion’s share of pushing ideas to fruition.

    Yet, as we move further along the trajectory of execution, we are liable to get lost in the “project plateau.” We know we’re on the plateau when we are overwhelmed with Action Steps and can see no end in sight. Our energy and commitment—and thus a willingness to tolerate the sometimes painful process of execution—are naturally high only when an idea is first conceived. The honeymoon period quickly fades as Action Steps pile up and compete with our other ongoing commitments. Our ideas become less interesting as we realize the implied responsibilities and sheer amount of work required to execute them.

    The easiest and most seductive escape from the project plateau is the most dangerous one: a new idea. New ideas offer a quick return to the high energy and commitment zone, but they also cause us to lose focus. As the new star rises, our execution efforts for the original idea start to fall off. The end result? A plateau filled with the skeletons of abandoned ideas. Although it is part of the creative’s essence to constantly generate new ideas, our addiction to new ideas is also what often cuts our journeys short.


    Act Without Conviction

    The truth is, creativity isn’t about wild talent as much as it’s about productivity. To find a few ideas that work, you need to try a lot that don’t. It’s a pure numbers game.

    —Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering, Stanford School of Engineering

    The notion of taking rapid action without conviction defies the conventional wisdom to think before you act. But for the creative mind, the cost of waiting for conviction can be too great to bear. Waiting builds apathy and increases the likelihood that another idea will capture our fancy and energy. What’s more, if you were to build lots of conviction after much analysis, it might leave you too deeply committed to a single plan of action and unable to change course when necessary.

    Traditional practices such as writing a business plan—ultimately a static document that will inevitably be changed on the fly as unforeseen opportunities arise—must be weighed against the benefits of just starting to take incremental action on your idea, even if such early actions feel reckless. Taking action helps expose whether we are on the right or wrong path more quickly and more definitively than pure contemplation ever could.

    During one of my visits to IDEO, a world -renowned product innovation and design consultancy, I had the opportunity to spend a morning with Sam Truslow, a senior team member who oversees the company’s work with organizations like Hewlett-Packard. Like many folks at IDEO, Truslow readily admits that the famed “idea factory” is widely misunderstood. “What makes us tick is not just having good ideas, despite what clients think,” says Truslow. “When people want new ideas, what they are really saying is that they can’t execute.” What IDEO does provide is an incredibly effective structure for the execution of ideas—often ideas that their clients may have already had. For Truslow, IDEO’s tendency to constantly “make stuff ” throughout the creative process is perhaps the most critical ingredient to the company’s success.


    Kill Ideas Liberally

    If you can learn to take action more quickly, you will reap the rewards of having more preliminary data about new possibilities. But the ability to act on fledgling ideas will help only if you also have the willpower to abandon them when necessary. When asked about their greatest failures, many of the teams I met shared instances in which a new idea came up and pushed a project offtrack—an idea that should have been killed once it was clear to everyone involved that it was a dead end.

    The ability to expose an idea’s faults and doubts based on data from early actions is a critical skill for productive creative teams. Often this force of skepticism comes from a few members of the team who tend to see the downside of ideas rather than their potential. Some might refer to these skeptics as “Debbie Downers” or “killjoys”—drains on the excitement in the room—but their viewpoint is incredibly valuable. Those of us who work alone must find ways to cultivate this skepticism on our own. Whether it means playing the role of the skeptic for our own ideas or engaging others to play it, we must incorporate this proactive element of doubt.

    Walt Disney is known for his boundless creativity, not his skepticism. But it turns out that Disney went to great lengths to ensure that his creative teams vetted ideas ruthlessly and killed them when necessary. An article by personal development specialist Keith Trickey describes how, when developing feature-length films, Disney implemented a staged process using three different rooms to foster ideas and then rigorously assess them:

    Room One. In this room, rampant idea generation was allowed without any restraints. The true essence of brainstorming— unrestrained thinking and throwing around ideas without limits—was supported without any doubts expressed.


    Room Two. The crazy ideas from Room One were aggregated and organized in Room Two, ultimately resulting in a storyboard chronicling events and general sketches of characters.

    Room Three. Known as the “sweat box,” Room Three was where the entire creative team would critically review the project without restraint. Given the fact that the ideas from individuals had already been combined in Room Two, the criticism in Room Three was never directed at one person—just at elements of the project.

    Every creative person and team needs a Room Three. As we build teams and develop a creative process, our tendency is to privilege the no -holds -barred creativity of Room One. But the idea bloodshed that occurs in Room Three is just as important as the wild ideation of Room One.

    Through the use of physical space and clearly articulated objectives for the phases of idea generation, Disney created an extraordinarily productive creative enterprise that changed the world of entertainment. In their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation , Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, two of Walt Disney’s chief animators, wrote that “there were actually three different Walts: the dreamer, the realist, and the spoiler. You never knew which one was coming into your meeting.” It seems that Disney not only pushed his team through all three rooms, he embodied the characteristics of the three rooms himself.

    The best practice here is to value the skeptic’s role in idea generation. When you find yourself (or your team) rallying around a brand-new idea or applying creative touches to a project, you must summon a dose of skepticism to ground your judgment. You don’t need to set aside three actual rooms, but you do need a period of scrutiny in your creative process. You also don’t want to create too much structure around when you can and cannot generate new ideas. However, you must be willing to kill ideas liberally—for the sake of fully pursuing others.


    Measure Meetings with Action

    Most meetings are fruitless. Amidst all the brainstorming, we must find ways to measure the outcome of meetings. While some of the greatest ideas and solutions come up in meetings, we often fail to connect these ideas to a tangible set of next steps. Ideally, meetings should lead to ideas that are captured as Action Steps and then assigned to individuals together with deadlines.

    Meetings are extremely expensive in terms of our time and energy. When a meeting begins, the work flow of every team member stops. All progress comes to a grinding halt —and every person’s effort to execute is put on pause as the team comes together. At the very least there is an agenda for the meeting, but all too often there isn’t. And if there is an agenda, it is likely that attendees were polled for agenda topics and encouraged to add something—a practice that only makes meetings longer. The worst part is that most teams plan meetings as liberally as they drink coffee.

    After years of observing teams struggle to balance productivity with the desire to meet, I can report that the most productive teams plan meetings sparingly. Using the Action Method lens on life, we can argue that meetings have little value without any actionable outcome. In most cases, leaving a meeting without anything actionable signifies that the meeting was just an information exchange and should have taken place over e-mail.


    The Tao of the Follow-up

    A big part of execution is persistence. When we rely on others to drive momentum, our projects are at their mercy. Sometimes, to keep moving our ideas forward, we need to relentlessly follow up with others.

    Jesse Rothstein, an energetic and charismatic sales representative at Procter & Gamble, radiated the enthusiasm and collegial spirit bred during his days as a star athlete playing a starting position on Cornell University’s lacrosse team. Working for Procter & Gamble, Rothstein spent much of his time on the road, traveling from store to store along the East Coast, meeting with the corporate buyers of Procter & Gamble’s products.

    Many of the managers and buyers at Wal-Mart, Costco, and BJ’s Wholesale Club knew Rothstein—and they all loved him. But, while he knew everything about the trends and margins on toothpaste, mouthwash, and laundry detergent, Rothstein was best known for what he did when he didn’t know something. He would seek the answer and ruthlessly follow up until he got it. Simple, right?

    Following up is easy when the answer is a phone call away. But what about finding information that requires responses from multiple people? What about pursuing an answer that lies only at the very end of a long chain of frustrating and tiresome actions? Rothstein’s gift is his ability to navigate corporate bureaucracies, multiple time zones, and various rungs of the corporate ladder to find information and serve his clients. He has no MBA, no souped-up technological solutions, and no magical powers. What Rothstein has is perseverance and a simple conviction that he adheres to with an almost religious fervor: he follows up like crazy.


    Seek Constraints

    Sometimes I ask teams to tell me about projects that were especially difficult to execute. A surprising number of stories have a similar beginning: “The client was very hands -off.” “There was no defined budget; we were told to think big.” “The brief was rather open and there was no firm deadline established.” While the outcomes may vary, the beginnings of these nightmare projects share a common theme: the teams felt especially free.

    Sometimes this sense of freedom is really a symptom of something missing. Perhaps the client is still wavering about direction or awaiting more information from higher-ups. In such cases, while the brief may appear very open, the client is likely to impose more unexpected restrictions later on in the project. Such surprises are likely to cause frustration and redundant work. But this is not the main reason why open-ended projects fail.

    It turns out that constraints—whether they are deadlines, budgets, or highly specific creative briefs—help us manage our energy and execute ideas. While our creative side intuitively seeks freedom and openness—blue-sky projects—our productivity desperately requires restrictions.

    During the summer of 2008, I was invited to the set of Engine Room, a reality-TV series being produced by MTV and Hewlett-Packard. The program gathered four teams of four creative professionals each from Europe, Asia, South America, and the United States. These teams would compete as they addressed a series of seven creative briefs. Once the brief was shared, the teams would have anywhere from one to six days to brainstorm, plan, and execute their ideas.


    Have a Tempered Tolerance for Change

    In any collaboration, one of the greatest challenges that can arise is change. Of course, our ideas and projects must evolve with the feedback and realizations we gain over the course of development. While we must remain open to change, we must also ensure that changes are introduced at the right time and for the right reasons. Change can get us offtrack very easily.

    When we become passionate about a particular project and invest tremendous amounts of time and energy, it’s only natural that we become less willing to change course. Momentum and other sources of energy that help us survive the project plateau can also make us headstrong. As we become more confident, we also become more resistant to change—even when we need it.

    Structure is a mechanism that you can use to preserve the possibility of change in passionate creative pursuits. Rather than invite consideration of change at any time, many creative teams set up periodic meetings throughout the development process called “challenge meetings.” In a challenge meeting, anyone is invited to ask and answer questions like “What doesn’t make sense with our current plan?” “What are we missing?” and “What should change?” This is similar to what happened in Room Three at Disney in the early days.


    Progress Begets Progress

    As you successfully reach milestones in your projects, you should celebrate and surround yourself with these achievements. As a human being, you are motivated by progress. When you see concrete evidence of progress, you are more inclined to take further action.

    To use progress as a motivational force, you must find a way to measure it. For an ongoing project that has already been made public, progress is embodied in the feedback and testimonials from the audience. For projects that are still under wraps, progress reveals itself as lists of completed Action Steps or old drafts that have been marked up and since updated.

    Your instinct might be to throw these relics away. After all, the work is completed. But some exceptionally productive creatives savor these items as testaments to progress. They surround themselves with artifacts of completed work.

    The inspiration to generate ideas comes easy, but the inspiration to take action is more rare. Especially amidst heavy, burdensome projects with hundreds of Action Steps and milestones, it is emotionally invigorating to surround yourself with progress. Why throw away the evidence of your achievements when you can create an inspiring monument to getting stuff done? Some teams, including the Behance team, have created “Done Walls” covered with old Action Steps. We literally gather up the records of completed tasks from projects—often notebook pages of checked-off actions and index cards with descriptions of features we’ve added—and then we decorate certain walls with these artifacts. For us, the “Done Wall” is a piece of art that reminds us of the progress we have made thus far. When we feel mired in the thick of it all, we can look up and see the wake of progress that trails behind us.


    Visual Organization and Advertising Action to Yourself

    It is no secret that design is a critical element of productivity. Design helps maintain a sense of order amidst creative chaos. It is a valuable tool for managing (and controlling) our own attention spans. Design can also help us advertise actions-to-be-taken to ourselves.

    On a frigid day in February 2009, I visited John Maeda, the newly minted president of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), to find out how the leader of one of America’s premier design schools organizes his efforts. Sworn in just months before in September 2008, Maeda was already making waves in the academic world, both for his nontraditional background and his bold management strategies.

    For starters, Maeda implemented a plan for radical transparency—a topic we’ll discuss later under the Forces of Community—between the RISD administration and its student body. The administration rolled out a series of blogs, including, a forum for discussion about the RISD community that Maeda contributes to regularly and on which any staff member or student can post as well. Next, Maeda spearheaded the rollout of a network of “digital bulletin boards” strategically placed throughout the RISD campus. These fifty-two-inch Samsung LCDs present the community with information about events as well as artwork, photos, and messages posted by anyone on campus.

    I was eager to meet with Maeda not only to learn more about his impact at RISD, but also to hear about how his unique background had influenced his capacity to make ideas happen. Maeda is a digital artist, graphic designer, computer scientist, and educator who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and electrical engineering, a PhD in design science, and an MBA. Prior to joining RISD, Maeda taught media arts and sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for twelve years and served as associate director of research at the MIT Media Lab. In many ways, Maeda embodies the new twenty-first-century hybrid creative thinker/leader.



    Maintaining Attention and Resolve

    IT SHOULD BE clear by now that organizing life into a series of projects, managing those projects with a bias toward action, and always moving the ball forward are critical for execution.

    But sticking to a schedule and maintaining loyalty to ideas is hard. Execution is rarely comfortable or convenient. You must accept the hardships ahead and anticipate the spotlights of seduction that are liable to stifle your progress.

    You can only stay loyal to your creative pursuits through the awareness and control of your impulses. Along the journey to making ideas happen, you must reduce the amount of energy you spend on stuff related to your insecurities. You must also learn to withstand external pressures that can deter you from your path.


    Rituals for Perspiration

    Despite the many best practices of organizations with a bias toward action, execution ultimately boils down to sheer perspiration.

    Roy Spence, chairman of GSD&M Idea City—the powerful ad agency behind brands such as Southwest Airlines, Wal-Mart, Krispy Kreme, and the famous “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign—was once asked by Fast Company magazine how he keeps up the pace amidst serious competitors vying for his firm’s accounts. “The one thing that will out-trump everything is just to out-work the bastards,” he proclaimed. “You’ve got to out-work them, out-think them, and out-passion them. But what a thrill.”

    Perspiration is the best form of differentiation, especially in the creative world. Work ethic alone can single-handedly give your ideas the boost that makes all the difference. Unfortunately, perspiration is not glamorous. Endless late nights, multiple redrafts, and countless meetings consume the majority of your time—all with the intention of breathing life into your projects. Passion for your work will also play an important role. Passion yields tolerance—tolerance for all of the frustration and hardship that come your way as you seek to make your ideas happen.

    In order to channel your ability to focus—and perspire—for extended periods of time, you will likely need to develop a consistent work schedule. Structuring time spent executing ideas is a best practice of admired creative leaders across industries. It is the only way to keep up with the continuous stream of Action Steps and allocate sufficient time for deep thought.

    It is worth taking a few moments to look at the work routines of some especially prolific writers of our time. Writing is a particularly labor-intensive exercise that calls for pure discipline and perspiration. You can have all the ideas in the world in your head—or at your fingertips—but you still need to write them down, word by word.


    Reconsider Your Work Space

    How you arrange your work space is a very personal choice, especially as you embark on creative projects. Your surroundings affect your ability to focus, and perhaps your propensity to think creatively. But the characteristics of a space that make us more productive—or more creative—can seem elusive. Some teams insist on open loft-type spaces that are shared by all team members. Other companies adopt a more traditional setup of personal cubicles or offices that provide more privacy for employees. While there are no set-in-stone best practices for the ideal work space, there are some helpful principles worth considering.

    Different types of spaces support different types of activity. For example, in one recent study by Joan Meyers -Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota, it was found that ceiling height affected how people processed information. In the study, Meyers-Levy assigned one hundred participants to one of two rooms—the first had an eight-foot ceiling, and the other had a ten-foot ceiling. All of the people were then asked to perform the same task, which involved grouping items into categories of their choice. Those in the room with higher ceilings came up with a more abstract set of categories, while those in the smaller room proposed more concrete categories. “You’re focusing on the specific details in the lower-ceiling condition,” Meyers-Levy explained in Scientific American Mind.


    Reduce Your Amount of “Insecurity Work”

    As you introduce your ideas to the world, you are bound to become anxious about what the world thinks. You will want to frequently observe the progress you are making and confirm the status of everything you’ve created. This is a normal tendency, even though the root of it is often an unfounded insecurity—a fear that you’ve overlooked something or will ultimately fail. While we all have different insecurities, most of us share a common approach to dealing with them: we seek information to make our anxiety go away. For some, this amounts to countless hours spent reviewing traffic reports for Web sites, scrutinizing bank balances and every transaction in your business, reviewing Twitter search feeds for your business, getting daily e-mails with every piece of data you can imagine—the list goes on. Basking in the data makes us feel better.

    I call these daily (and in some cases hourly) habits “Insecurity Work.” It’s the stuff you do that has no intended outcome, does not move the ball forward in any way, and is quick enough that you can do it multiple times a day without realizing how much time is being wasted. While all of these actions are important once in a while, there is no rational reason to perform them so often.



    YOUR CAPACITY TO organize and execute is only the first of three ingredients in the pursuit of making ideas happen. The humbling truth is that ideas are not made to happen through solitary genius or ingenuity. As our exploration of the forces of community will illustrate, other people always play a role in pushing your ideas forward.

    It is no surprise that ideas gain new dimensions when other people get involved. Concepts are more quickly refined, holes in logic more quickly exposed. As you engage others in your projects, you become accountable for being productive and following through. The forces of community help you capitalize on feedback, stay nimble, and share the burden of execution.

    Your success will depend on how well you harness the efforts of others. As you will see in the chapters ahead, you must be proactive in identifying who your community includes, and how to engage diverse groups of people with different perspectives. With thoughtful stewardship, your community will become the ultimate platform for your ideas.


    The Dreamers, the Doers, and the


    We all have someone in our lives who is a perpetual dreamer—someone with real talent who never seems to get his or her act together. Frank (not his real name) is a master carpenter with a love for his craft that started very early on in Croatia, where he apprenticed in the art of carpentry. He came to New York City with no more than his raw skill and desire to use it, independently, to build great pieces of carpentry—closets, shelves, and the like—for his clients.

    When you talk to Frank about what he envisions on any particular project, his eyes light up. In his broken English, he will conjure up some carefully selected words to describe the fine details. “This is to be very special—you will like the fine edge, the touch


    Seldom Is Anything Accomplished Alone

    We all have strengths and weaknesses as creators, and we tend to assume that we are bound to work within those parameters (“I’m just not an organized person,” “I’m not good at managing clients,” etc.). From our discussion of the tendencies of Doers, Dreamers, and Incrementalists, we see how everyone can benefit from a partner who acts as a foil and a complement.

    If you work in isolation as a Dreamer, your ideas will swiftly come and go without accountability and stimulation from others. As a Doer, you may struggle to come up with new ideas and solutions in favor of becoming mired in the details. As an Incrementalist, you will likely conceive of and execute a raft of projects that eventually sputter and grow stagnant, short of their true reach. No matter which type you fall into, developing meaningful partnerships will make you more effective.

    Of course, we’ve all heard horror stories of partnerships gone sour. These typically result from mismatched personality types or too much similarity of skill sets. For instance, a collaboration between two Dreamers might result in a project that’s long on idea generation and short on actual execution, while a partnership among Doers can quickly become straight-ahead execution and organization without the vision and spontaneity required for breakthroughs. Partnerships must be formed carefully. But, when they work, ideas can flourish on a much larger scale.

    There are many famous long-term partnerships between Doers and Dreamers that have yielded extraordinary results. One such partnership is between Jeffrey Kalmikoff and Jake Nickell, the co-founders of the online T-shirt design community known as Threadless. Starting in the year 2000, Kalmikoff and Nickell grew Threadless from a small side project into a $35 million business.


    Share Ideas Liberally

    He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature.

    —Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Isaac McPherson, August 13, 1813

    The notion of “sharing ideas liberally” defies the natural instinct to keep your ideas a secret. Yet, among the hundreds of successful creatives I’ve interviewed, a fearless approach to sharing ideas is one of the most common attributes. Why? Because having the idea is just one tiny step along the road to making that idea happen. During the journey, communal forces are instrumental in refining the very substance of the idea, holding us accountable for making it happen, building a network that will push us to go above and beyond, providing us with valuable material and emotional support, and spreading the word to attract resources and publicity. By sharing your idea, you take the first step in creating the community that will act as a catalyst to making it happen.


    Capitalize on Feedback

    As you share your ideas with others, you will start to see whether people engage (or not) with your ideas once they’re out there. The level of engagement alone can shed new light on the value and potential flaws of your ideas. And as people engage with your ideas, they will develop opinions about them. Ideally, the opinions will result in an exchange, and this exchange will result in useful feedback.

    The value of feedback is inarguable. It is a powerful, sobering force that can help refine good ideas, kill bad ones, and postpone premature ideas that are not yet ripe. But if feedback is so readily available around us—and so crucial in making ideas happen —why is there so little focus on it? Very few creative teams that we’ve met— in start-ups as well as in established companies—place significant emphasis on promoting feedback exchange. And a lot of creative minds can barely tolerate feedback.

    Feedback in the creative world is clouded by a unique conundrum that ultimately comes down to incentives. While the value of feedback is high, the incentive to give feedback to others is low—and the actual desire to hear it is often nonexistent. After all, the work you do to pursue your ideas is a labor of love. The last thing anyone wants is to hear harsh truths about a loved one.


    Transparency Boosts Communal Forces

    Nothing boosts feedback exchange more than transparency. Nowadays, if you wish, it is possible for everyone you know to always see what you’re working on. This may seem a very unattractive value proposition, akin to working naked! Nevertheless, your ability to make use of many of the benefits that your community can provide for you depends on how transparent you are with your ideas, objectives, and progress.

    Tony Hsieh, CEO of the online retailing company Zappos, has spoken extensively about how the microblogging and social networking platform Twitter has helped his company build stronger relationships both externally (with customers) and internally (among employees). When Hsieh made the decision to embrace transparency both personally and professionally by using Twitter, the impact was powerful. Hsieh explained in a post on his company blog:

    Because radical transparency was part of the culture of [T]weeting, I decided to give it a try and be as transparent as possible, both for myself personally and for Zappos. It was also consistent with [one of Zappos’s core values]: “Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication.” What I found was that people really appreciated the openness and honesty, and that led people to feel more of a personal connection with Zappos and me compared to other corporations and businesspeople that were on Twitter.

    By embracing transparency and [T]weeting regularly, Twitter became my equivalent of being always on camera. Because I knew that I was going to be [T]weeting regularly about whatever I was doing or thinking, I was more conscious of and made more of an effort to live up to our [company’s core values].


    Communal Forces Are Best Channeled in Circles

    If you don’t normally work within a group, you may want to create your own. Writers’ circles are groups of writers who meet on a weekly basis to benchmark each other’s progress and keep each other motivated. But such “circles” aren’t limited to the literary world.

    For instance, Claude Monet is often recognized as the founder of Impressionist painting, but the Impressionist movement, which was quite radical during its day, arose from a group of friends and fellow artists. The original circle included Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frédéric Bazille, and Alfred Sisley; it later expanded to include Camille Pissarro, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Émile Zola, and Paul Cézanne. At the beginning, the original four friends often lived and worked together, pooling resources, inspiring each other to take risks, and learning from each other’s mistakes. Monet crystallized the importance of the Impressionist circle in an interview from the era:

    It wasn’t until 1869 that I saw Manet again, but we became close friends at once, as soon as we met. He invited me to come and see him each evening in a café in the Batignolle district where he and his friends met when the day’s work in the studio was over. There I met . . . Cézanne, Degas who had just returned from a trip to Italy, the art critic Duranty, Emile Zola who was then making his debut in literature, and several others as well. I myself brought along Sisley, Bazille, and Renoir. Nothing could be more interesting than the talks we had with their perpetual clashes of opinion. Your mind was held in suspense all the time, you spurred the others on to sincere, disinterested inquiry and were spurred on yourself, you laid in a stock of enthusiasm that kept you going for weeks on end until you could give final form to the idea you had in mind.


    Seek Competition

    Six years is 2,190 days. While spectacular creative achievements take time, Noah Kalina’s “Everyday” project was unique in the consistency required and the forces that made it a worldwide sensation. Kalina is the first to admit that his idea to take one picture of himself every day—now for nine years running—was neither bold nor ambitious.

    Every night, Kalina would snap two self-portraits with a digital camera before going to bed. On August 27, 2006, Kalina uploaded a video entitled “Everyday” to YouTube. The video featured the first six years’ worth of self-portraits played in a continuous stream, accompanied by a soundtrack by his then-girlfriend and fellow Brooklyn native Carly Comando. “Everyday” became one of the top ten YouTube videos of all time, watched by over fourteen million people. Noah’s fledgling idea—and the preceding commitment to pursue it—became art and inspiration for people around the world. An endless set of appearances followed the release of the video, including coverage by Good Morning America, CBS Evening News, ABC News, VH1, the New York Times , the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, giving his career as a photographer a major boost.


    Commit Yourself in Order to Commit Others

    When you launch a new project, you want everyone you know to help get the word out. You will want introductions to potential clients and customers. Ultimately, you will want your community to mine their Rolodexes and resources to help your idea gain traction. But a problem emerges if you have not yet demonstrated your full commitment to the idea you are broadcasting.

    An example that comes to mind is Rebecca (not her real name), an aspiring jewelry designer in New York City who came to me for advice on launching her new venture. Rebecca had developed an extraordinary line of jewelry in her spare time on the weekends that was receiving great feedback from early customers. She also had just received a few great blog reviews on the line that, in turn, had led to more Web site traffic and some unexpected sales. She was becoming more confident in the potential of her business and was starting to take the pursuit more seriously.

    As she posed thoughtful questions and jotted down my suggestions, I was impressed by her determination. As our conversation continued, I started to consider what I might be able to do to help—and who I might be able to introduce to Rebecca. At the time, Behance’s reach in the world of jewelry design was really growing. Perhaps I could write an article about Rebecca’s pursuit or introduce her to some great boutique owners who could really help launch the line? But as impressed and excited as I was for Rebecca, I had one reservation holding me back: Rebecca had not yet fully committed to the venture. Her full-time job as an analyst in an investment bank was still consuming the majority of her time. She had even shared with me that some of her recent orders were too large to fill. She was scrambling to improve her Web site and hire some part-time people to help assemble the jewelry in the limited spare time she had.


    Create Systems for Accountability

    Perhaps the most critical of all communal forces is accountability. Given all of the tendencies of the creative mind that we have discussed, it is no surprise that we need help staying focused and committed to our goals. There are multiple ways for us to create a system of accountability for ourselves. At the annual TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference, the power of the stage helps hold leaders accountable to bold goals. Various online social networks provide tools for artists to broadcast their work. For freelance and remote workers, the coworking movement provides a communal work space that fosters focus.


    The Power of the Network

    As I was exploring the Web late one night, I came across the work of Brock Davis. Davis had published a project called “Make Something Cool Every Day” a few months earlier, and it was miraculously starting to receive tens of thousands of visits every day. Davis had proclaimed at the start of 2009 that he would create something new and “cool” every single day, and upload it to the Behance Network. What followed was an endless stream of portfolio pieces, each with a caption and some clever artistic twist that made you eager to see the next one. Through sheer consistency, Davis built an audience on the Network that would visit his portfolio every day to review his latest post and pass along words of encouragement. Knowing he had an expectant audience in turn fueled Davis to continue to deliver regularly.

    What I didn’t know at the time was that Davis was just one of almost a thousand creative professionals who had joined together, through various online networks, in a group called MSCED—Make Something Cool Every Day. The collective was largely made up of freelancers in the creative community who had a shared determination to consistently develop their portfolios, get feedback, and function under the pressure of time. Of course, this entire collaboration depended implicitly on the accountability provided by other participants as well as by hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world who were captivated by the consistency and originality of the work being uploaded daily.

    The power of accountability comes from your community—those around you who have a vested interest in your work and life. As you have learned from our discussion of the benefits of transparency and joining or creating circles of peers, your accountability to your own ideas is greatly amplified when you “go public” on any project—and even more so when you publicly proclaim your goals.





    Thanh Phan

    so many new things to learn from this book. 😃

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