Sunday, August 28, 2011

Making Ideas Happen

Making Idea Happen book cover

Scott Belsky is a compelling speaker. When I heard him at an organizing conference earlier this year, I was so impressed with him — and with what he had to say — that I briefly thought about trying to get a job at his company, Behance. That's an idea that didn't happen, for many reasons — but when I read through my notes from his talk a few days ago, I decided to get his book and learn more.

Belsky is concerned with helping "creative professionals" — the ones who have lots of ideas — bring those ideas to fruition. His book talks about the three important components in doing that:

1. Organization and execution.
2. The forces of community.
3. Leadership capability.

While all three sections have great ideas, I'm going to focus on just the first one: organization and execution.

Sometimes this section reminded me of David Allen and his book, Getting Things Done — even the book titles have a similar ring. But there are plenty of differences, too. And some items reminded me of the things I learned in my corporate days.

The way Belsky recommends we handle organization and execution is what he calls the Action Method, which "begins with the simple premise that everything is a project." A project could be the kinds of things you might think about: preparing a major presentation, for example, or doing your taxes. But there are also projects like "the stuff you do to advance your career" which become a "career development" project.

And each project has three primary components: Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items.

Action Steps are "the specific, concrete tasks that move you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc." We need a way to capture these anywhere they happen: at the office, surely, but also "when you are reading an article, taking a shower, daydreaming, or getting ready for bed."

Each Action Step "must be owned by a single person" because "an unowned Action Step will never be taken." This was a familiar idea to me, but what was new to me was Belsky's insistence that we not have one person take notes of all the Action Steps agreed to in a meeting, and send them around. "Each person needs to 'own' their Action Steps," he says. "When tasks are written in your own handwriting, in your own idiom, they remain familiar and are more likely to be executed." He also notes that "Some teams take a few minutes at the end of every meeting to go around the table and allow each person to recite the Action Steps that he or she captured. Doing so will almost always reveal a missed Action Step or a duplication on two people's lists."

Given that we're dealing with the Action Method, it's not surprising that Belsky says: "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."

Which brings us to References — all those things you may want to refer back to that are not actionable: handouts, manuals, web sites, etc. Belsky says many of us were trained back in our early school years to write everything down, and now have well-developed habits of doing so — but that for many of us "this habit of recording and organizing everything has become a time- and space-consuming behavior with no real payoff." Furthermore, "the more energy you spend on scribbling down notes, the more liable you are to miss the opportunity to capture valuable Action Steps."

Belsky provides suggestions for easy ways to store the References we keep. But he says we should ask ourselves "For what purpose would I refer back to this at some point?" — and if we can't think of anything, there's no need to keep it.

And then there are Backburner Items — the "things that are not actionable now but may be someday" — which reminded me of David Allen's someday/maybe list. Belsky mentions the need for a "Backburner ritual" to "periodically revisit and curate the Backburner as time goes on" and he suggests doing this monthly. Some items will become Action Steps, some will have become irrelevant and can be eliminated, and others will stay on the Backburner.

Belsky also dives into prioritization, recommending that we place all our projects on an Energy Line "according to how much energy they should receive." His sample line has five categories: extreme, high, medium, low and idle. At first, there's often a tendency to put too many items on the extreme end of the line; doing this exercise may force us to make tough decisions. "Energy is a finite resource that is seldom managed well," Belsky says, and going through the Energy Line exercise can help.

There's much more in this section, including many ideas about processing your email and the notes you take during the day, and many ideas about making the most of meetings. ("Most meetings are fruitless," he says.) Belsky quotes Seth Godin on the importance of shipping — getting your product, whatever it might be, out the door — and Jesse Rothstein on the importance of follow-up. There's also a mention of the importance of selecting good tools; Belsky says, "The aesthetics of the tools you use to make ideas happen matter."

As you can tell from how long I've nattered on here, I found a lot of worthwhile ideas in this book; I'm glad I read it. Now I need to go distill the Action Steps and Backburner Items I'm taking away from my reading; the book itself is my Reference, and it's one I'm going to keep.

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