Why New Ideas Can be Bad

Innovation is about more than just having great ideas – a point we’ve made here repeatedly. To innovate, you also have to execute ideas relentlessly. For many people, this is actually the hard part. I’m currently reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, and it has some of the most sensible advice on this topic that I’ve run across.

Here is a talk in which Belsky outlines some of the key points from the first part of the book:

Scott Belsky: How to Avoid the Idea Generation Trap from 99% on Vimeo.

The book supports a couple of points that we’ve made here before. One is that idea execution is essential. People are idea-generation machines. Belsky started the 99% Conference based on the old Edison quote – that invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. The issue is that if you look at the books, tips and consultants that address this topic, it would sure look like the equation is reversed. Given that, it’s great to see someone trying to address the 99%.

The second issue that he addresses nicely is the idea of constraints – he correctly points out that we’re more creative when we have to deal with constraints. One of the key reasons is that constraints make us focus, which is a critical step in executing ideas. Here’s how Belsky puts it:

Constraints serve as kindling for execution. When you’re not given constraints, you must seek them. You can start with the resources that are scarce – often time, money and energy (manpower). Also, by further defining the problem you are solving, you will come across certain limitations that are helpful constraints. As you find them, try to better understand them.

Brilliant creative minds become more focused and actionable when the realm of possibilities is defined and, to some extent, restricted. …

Despite your natural tendency to thrive on untethered creativity, you must recognize and harness constraints. And it is ultimately your responsibility to seek constraints when they are not given to you.

These ideas are pulled together with the graphic that shows the project plateau (which he discusses in this post from Smashing Magazine):

This shows the levels of excitement and energy that we have for ideas over time. When they are new, we have lots of both. However, once we settle into trying to make the idea real, the levels of both excitement and energy go down – it starts to feel more like work. How do we respond to this?

According to Belsky, the natural response is to look for the excitement of a new idea again – and succumbing to this temptation is deadly. If you do, you’ll end up with a lot of partially-executed ideas, which is functionally equivalent to having, well, no ideas at all.

The book (and the supporting website) has a lot of ideas for how to work through this. The main idea is to break down ideas (and the projects that result from them) down into action steps, and then focus on getting these done. It is easier to get big projects done when you are able to build momentum by achieving small steps on them on a near-constant basis.

In some ways this is similar to Dave Allen’s Get Things Done approach, but Belsky’s is more oriented to people doing creative work. Consequently, for me at least, this approach seems more useful. And since innovation is definitely creative, Making Ideas Happen will probably be useful for most people trying to improve innovation.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

6 thoughts on “Why New Ideas Can be Bad

  1. A really thought provoking post Tim. It has reminded me again of The Goal – Eli Goldratt which, 12 years after reading, still effects my decision making on a daily basis. I have also just realised that immediately leaping to ‘constraints’, real or potential provides the reality link to execution, and may be a vital part of preparing for turning a creative idea into a viable product.

    Really enjoying the blog.


  2. Thanks Rohan – I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

    That’s an interesting thought – that we should immediately leap to constraints. It may well be right!

Comments are closed.