SXSW Interview: How to Turn Ideas into Action

Last Updated Aug 17, 2010 8:30 PM EDT

In the world of entrepreneurship, great ideas are plentiful. Great execution, not so much. Edison said it best: "Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." In his new book, Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, (Portfolio, April 2010) entrepreneur Scott Belsky guides us through the rocky terrain of turning inspiration into actual products and services without an excessive amount of pain and perspiration. Belsky is also the CEO of Manhattan-based Behance, an online platform for creative professionals. I recently caught up with him at SXSW in Austin, where he shared a few practical tips:
1. Reduce all projects to just three primary components. The first step toward executing ideas, says Belsky, is to create a set of action steps, which are the specific tasks that move you forward. "Every action step should start with a verb," he says. Next, make a list of backburner items -- concepts that may be actionable someday but not yet. "Create a ritual to come back to the backburner regularly," he adds. The third component is what Belsky calls reference items, defined as attachments, articles, or notes from a meeting. "When you leave a meeting you should have reference, back burner and action steps," he says. "And you can start measuring the value of a meeting in action steps. If you leave a meeting with just reference items, then it shouldn't have been a meeting."

2. Generate ideas in moderation. "A new idea will get you off track, especially when you're in execution mode," Belsky says. "The challenge is to balance idea generation and relentless focus." To find the right balance, he suggests establishing a bias toward new ideas during brainstorming sessions, while ruthlessly killing them if they come up randomly while you're in the middle of executing another idea.

3. Act without conviction. "We're taught to think before we act," Belsky says. "But the benefit of taking action and breaking the seal of hesitation is that you vet your ideas to customers and you get data early." So a fast beta launch of a new product or service will get you valuable customer feedback that you can use to further perfect your idea. "Waiting builds apathy and increases the likelihood that another idea will capture our fancy and energy."

4. Encourage fighting within your team. "Leaders of creative teams need to ruthlessly fight apathy when discussing ideas," Belsky says. "We found that fighting is a cultural attribute of success." In a heated discussion among passionate people, if someone backs down summarily, the idea will suffer and so will the customer, he says. Keeping the heat on until a compromise is reached is far more likely to move an idea forward. "But there has to be a culture where fighting is viewed as an asset in certain situations," Belsky adds. "And you also need to show respect for your colleagues at all times."

5. Seek competition. How many entrepreneurs utter the claim "we don't really have any competition"? That's nonsense. "We tend to shy away from competition," Belsky says. "But you need to seek out competition in your community. It helps you to continue to refine your endeavors, and to finish your project, and it ultimately serves the end users. Competition is a powerful force for execution."

How about you? Do you have some proven methods for making ideas happen in your own organization?

Light bulb image by Flickr user aloshbennett, CC 2.0
  • Donna Fenn

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