Generating ideas is easy. It’s executing them once they’re exposed that’s challenging. For six years, Scott Belsky, creative industry guru and entrepreneur, studied prolific creative professionals. He found that those most successful followed similar procedures; which seems counter-productive for the creative ilk. He details his findings in his new book entitled, “Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision & Reality.” Following is the second of a four-part article series highlighting Belsky’s message. Here, the focus is executing ideas once Action Steps have been defined.
Avoid the Project Plateau. Realizing a project, whether personal or professional, requires time management, allocating energy and relentless completion of Action Steps. “Project plateau” occurs when you’re feeling overwhelmed by Action Steps. Ideas become less interesting with their implied responsibilities and work to execute them. The easiest and most dangerous escape is to create a new idea. To advance your idea, you must develop the capacity to endure and thrive as you experience the project plateau. Even with fear, self-doubt, and the next step unclear, constant motion is the key to execution.
Act Without Conviction. Waiting builds apathy and increases the likelihood that another idea will attract attention. Taking action helps expose whether we’re on the right path quicker and more definitively than pure contemplation. Many team environments strive for consensus before they execute ideas; which stalls progress. There’s less need for consensus in a team when individuals are encouraged to take incremental action on their own through the creative process. As a creative team leader, you should create an environment that allows premature action.
Kill Ideas Liberally. Exposing an idea’s faults and doubt based on data from early actions is a critical skill for productive teams. The ability to act on fledgling ideas will help only if you have the willpower to discard them as needed. Solo workers must also find ways to cultivate this skepticism, either by self-analysis or engaging others. Every creative person/team needs to critically review a project without restraint. Value the skeptic’s role in idea generation. Strike a balance between too much structure around creating/not creating ideas and killing ideas liberally to pursue viable ones.
Measure Meetings with Action. Most meetings are unproductive and drain time and energy. Ideally, they should generate ideas that are captured as Action Steps and assigned to individuals together with deadlines. Belsky’s research found that the most productive teams plan meetings sparingly. Exiting a meeting without anything actionable demonstrates an information sharing session, which can be done via e-mail. Following are some meeting best practices:
Abolish automatic meetings. Avoid meeting on Monday (or any other day of the week) just “because it’s Monday.”
End meetings with a review of Action Steps captured. Have team members say their goals, which breeds accountability.
Call out non-actionable meetings. Speak up and question the value of meetings that end without any Action Steps.
Conduct standing meetings. Discourage lengthy, pointless meetings.
Don’t call meetings out of your own insecurity. Great leaders ask themselves why they’re calling a meeting and fiercely protect their team’s time.
Avoid default-meeting times (30 min, 60 min). Ideally, meetings should have a start time and end as quickly as possible.
Measure something at every meeting. Quantify Action Steps or for those meetings held for a concrete, but nonactionable objective, measure a shared understanding, and consensus that will improve team chemistry.
Understand the Biology/Psychology of Completion. Belsky highlights author, change agent and master marketer, Seth Godin. Godin’s success can be attributed to “shipping.” Shipping occurs when you release something, i.e. your latest artwork at a gallery, sending a manuscript to a publisher. It’s the final act of execution that rarely happens. As a prolific shipper, Godin reaps rewards because his many failures also give rise to successes. Godin blames our biggest obstacle to shipping on the “lizard brain,” known as the amygdala. Anatomically it’s a small part of our brainstem; yet powerful in producing self-doubt. The lizard brain prefers the status quo; and amplifies its presence when routine is challenged. To combat lizard brain resistance, we must chose our projects wisely and execute without remorse.
Follow Up Relentlessly. Persistence is a big part of execution. Relying on others to drive momentum puts our projects at their mercy. Sometimes to advance ideas, we need to relentlessly follow up with others. Follow up is easy when the answer is a phone call away. Retrieving information that requires responses from multiple people, navigating bureaucracy, multiple time zones, etc., makes it challenging. Still, follow up ruthlessly to progress ideas.
Seek Constraints. Open-ended projects are less fertile than those that impose constraints. Constraints, whether budget, deadline or highly specific creative briefs, help us manage our energy and execute ideas. Begin with the common scarce resources of time, money and manpower. Brilliant creative minds become more focused and actionable with constraints. The goal is to find a balance between constraint and creative license. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to seek constraints when they’re not defined.
Temper Tolerance for Change. Remain open to change while concurrently ensuring that change is introduced at the right time for the right reasons. As we become more confident, we become more resistant to change, even when it’s needed. Last-minute changes are often sparked by self-doubt (think Godin’s “lizard brain”); Godin names this “thrashing.” It’s a process where everyone becomes a critic and dissects a plan, product or service. Thrashing is helpful in a project’s early stages to help detect flaws and refine. Discourage late-stage thrashing. Ship the product now and incorporate late thrashing ideas in the product’s next generation.