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… Our ideas become less interesting as we realize the implied responsibilities and sheer amount of work required to execute them
Scott Belsky in Making Ideas Happen
Something a creative team struggles with the most is execution. Developing ideas at the beginning of a project is an energising and exciting stage. But when it comes to knuckling down and seeing those ideas through, it takes much more determination and self-discipline.
Generating ideas requires a different type of thinking from actually delivering them, and shifting between the two isn’t easy. The Ideation Switch, a post by Lukas Fittl on tech startups, explains perfectly how idea generation and execution need to be separated, when often they are attempted at the same time. And in The Creative Benefits of Split Personalities, Heidi Grant Halvorson describes how, to be successful in their work, a creative person needs to employ two different thinking approaches – idea generation and idea evaluation.
Moving from idea to execution is such a common challenge that Scott Belsky, CEO of Behance and 99u has dedicated his career to helping creative people with it. In his first book “Making Ideas Happen: overcoming the obstacles between vision & reality”, Belsky dedicates a whole chapter to “Execution”. He provides insights into methods used by successful teams at IDEO and Disney, including: acting without conviction, killing ideas liberally, seeking constraints and having a tempered tolerance for change.
As part of the “Doing, not talking series”, I’ve collated a range of practical techniques below – some of which I’ve written about before – that you can use to push teams past sticky moments when they’re finding execution difficult.
Get ideas onto paper
Sometimes an idea feels so big, that’s it’s impossible to know where to start. This is often because the idea hasn’t been externalised in any way – it’s still a concept floating around someone’s head, and hard to make sense of. In this case, the first step is to get all of the aspects relating to an idea onto paper. Once all of this content is visible in front of you, you can start to break it down into smaller actionable steps and identify the easiest thing to begin with. Take a look at the exercise using sticky notes that I described in my last post on workflow for creative teams.
Waiting for perfection is a sure way of stalling a creative project. A way to get it moving again is to ensure that everybody is not precious about the first version. In other words, produce a “shitty first draft” just to get started. This enables other team members to feedback and build on ideas, and keeps things moving. Jon Bell describes a great workshop method for this – the McDonald’s Theory. Suggest the worst possible idea (e.g. when trying to agree on a place for lunch, someone suggests McDonald’s), and people soon start coming up with better solutions!
Manage your meetings
Meetings are a great excuse to “talk and not do”, but when managed well, conversely, they’re a great opportunity to keep teams progressing through a project. In the post Five Key Factors for Entrepreneurial Collaborations based on a research project I was involved in, I wrote that regular and short meetings are vital in keeping a project as a priority and maintaining momentum.
I also use the co-working meeting – a session when all project members get together for a specific period of time to work through tasks. A co-working session should be separate from any general discussions or brainstorming, and only used specifically to cross things off the to-do list.
Keep the project within scope
As Scott Belsky says in Making Ideas Happen, one of the easiest ways to avoid execution is by generating more ideas:
“New ideas offer a quick return to the high energy and commitment zone, but they also cause us to lose focus”
Not only do more ideas divert the team’s attention from “doing”, they also cause a project to keep growing outside of its original constraints – in technical terms, “scope creep”. As I wrote in an earlier post – “I’m a self-inflicted scope-creeper!” – it’s not always about killing all new ideas instantly, but having a set of questions that assess them against project objectives, to ensure the team stay on track and focussed.
What practical techniques do you use for moving a creative team from idea to execution?
Image: Andrew Hurley on Flickr