Interview: Scott Belsky on what it takes to bring good ideas to life
How do you feel when you see a promising idea that’s going nowhere? If you’re like Scott Belsky, the founder of Behance Network, a popular online platform for creative professionals to share their work, you get very restless. Belsky spent six years studying super-productive individuals and teams in the corporate world—folks who come up with great ideas and execute on them, again and again. What he found was that “having the idea” was a minor part of the process. Far more important were the high-achievers’ work methods: among other things, they were open to dissent, hard to distract, action-oriented, and proactive. Convinced that anybody can cultivate these traits, Belsky has collected his insights into a new book, Making Ideas Happen.
Since “making ideas happen” is what social innovators do, we thought you’d be interested in hearing from Belsky. So we talked with him recently about his ideas—from his inspiration for writing the book, to the difference between a contrarian and a naysayer, to why everything in life can be looked at as a project.
Dowser: You’ve been doing this work for a while. Why a book? And why now?
Belsky: It was a product of my frustration. My work focused on organizational development in the corporate world, but when I left work at night and met up with creatives, they talked about what they wanted to do—but never did anything! It frustrated me that all these creative ideas never went anywhere, so I thought, the stuff I do during the day for corporations needs to be adapted to creative teams. I wanted to help people with great ideas stay organized, and leverage their community to push ideas forward.
How do you go about studying best practices in creative teams?
I identify some of the most productive people and teams in the creative world. I never ask where their ideas come from; I’m interested in the execution: how do they manage their teams and projects, what questions do they ask of prospective employees during interviews?
What’s an example of an effective company?
IDEO [the design and innovation consulting firm] is very good at rapid prototyping and testing of products, and at figuring out ways to let people take ideas and run with them quickly. They’ve got a workshop on-site where anyone can go at anytime to get something done. So after a brainstorm in a meeting, you can work up a prototype there and have it ready by the next day.
One of the tips you give readers of your book is to ‘buck reactionary workflow.’ What does that mean?
We’re constantly in reaction mode; we’re living at the mercy of our Inbox. If we don’t preserve energy to be proactive, we’re never going to do anything profound. Piers Fawkes, the man behind PSFK, proposes a window of non-stimulation—a few hours every day where people don’t crack into any of their communications media and instead focus on short list of three to five things they want to do that will have maximum impact. This can involve researching, sketching, working out ideas; not reacting—creating.
In your book you emphasize the value of having a contrarian voice on a team. But how can teams ensure that contrarianism is constructive?
In the best cases, I’ve seen people and teams always take a moment for the contrarian approach. They’re not purposely avoiding the obvious or refusing to acknowledge it, but they’re also not shying away from a devil’s advocate approach. I’ve found that most successful teams have certain people on team who play that role.
Companies will actually hire someone and empower them to be the person who says, ‘What if we try it this way?’ Ten percent of time, people say ‘that’s a good point,’ and one that makes the difference between a really distinguished project and a failure.
A recent commenter on the Dowser website wrote, ‘I think what Millennials are very interested and concerned with is lifestyle design and impact: about creating lives that work, that are savvy, that are sexy yet socially engaged, relevant and useful.’ In what ways does your book speak to making ideas happen outside of the workplace?
That comment applies tremendously to Making Ideas Happen. In essence, everything in life is a project. Everything, even planning a birthday party for friends, can be broken down into tasks that make the work more manageable. It’s a mistake to separate work from play; when you’re passionate about what you do, play is work and work is play. Your approach to both applies across disciplines and spheres.
This interview was edited and condensed.