Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality

Scott Belsky


Review by, Mary Rundell-Holmes, Editor, High Tide Press

“You know, that’s a great idea,” exclaimed Joe, as he finished explaining a new insight into an aspect of employee management. “I should write an article!”

I smiled a bit sadly. I had heard my friend repeat that line many times in various contexts. And he really means to write. Joe, an extremely intelligent gentleman, has littered his computer with outlines of article ideas that he plans to fill out–some day. But he can’t bring himself to stick with the job; he has too many other things that clamor for his attention.

Now, I think I have found a book that describes Joe’s problem and offers some solutions–Making Ideas Happen (Portfolio, 2010, $25.95). The author, Scott Belsky, would identify Joe as a dreamer, not a doer or incrementalist (one who can both dream and do). The dreamer has endless ideas but lacks the disciplines necessary to execute them. Having studied creatives of all sorts, Belsky has just the advice that Joe needs–a step-by-step process that, if followed, would result in a thought-provoking, journal article.

According to Belsky, ideas become reality when organization and execution combine with the forces of community and leadership capability. That actually sounds like “old” advice recycled in yet another book. However, this author has a knack for making theory very practical.

For instance, in the chapter on action, he states that everything–including a great idea–is a project. He breaks the idea and the matters related to it into Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items. The steps move the idea forward; the references are items/activities that inform the process; and backburner items are not actionable in the current context but may be in the future.

Since Action Steps are essential to a “living” idea, Belsky strongly urges creatives to carry writing materials with them at all times so that steps may be written down in active form (i.e., call…, draw…, research…, identify…, etc.). He further suggests keeping managerial actions separate from those that actually move the idea toward fruition.

Naturally, disciplined follow-through is absolutely essential on all fronts. A creative achieves this through prioritizing wisely—taking his/her energy levels into consideration and differentiating constantly between what is urgent and what is important. Commitment to execution is particularly necessary during the project plateau, the time when the nitty-gritty of step after step wears down one’s excitement. Belsky reminds the reader to “navigate life with a bias toward action,” an attitude that enables one to do such things as:

  • “Kill ideas liberally” when they interfere with action on the original idea.
  • “Measure meetings with action.”
  • Be single-mindedly persistent.
  • “Seek constraints” such as budgets and deadlines to help manage energy.


Belsky also spends a good deal of time touting the benefits of working in community with others. He begins by citing the results of an MIT study showing that employees with the most extensive online networks were seven percent more productive than their colleagues. Even more productive were employees who had large face-to-face networks. They “produced” 30 percent more than their coworkers!

The section on community underscores the need for taking advantage of the “forces around you.” For example, Belsky introduces successful people who have capitalized on partnerships, such as Jeffrey Kalmikoff and Jake Nickell, co-founders of Threadless, the $35 million, T-shirt design business; Roger Bennett, founder of a variety of projects/businesses focused on strengthening a sense of Jewish identity in young people; and Chuck Anderson, a 24-year-old graphic artist who has worked with high profile clients since he was a teenager. These and others interviewed by the author are not afraid to share ideas and benefit from feedback given by peers, clients and the public.

The process of sharing and feedback happens through networking in cyberspace and on the ground. Belsky emphasizes the benefits of both though he notes again that face-to-face interaction has more powerful effects. One of his suggestions is to join or organize a group of no more than 15 people, who are interested in sharpening skills, offering and receiving guidance, and refining the quality of their projects.

The final section on leadership is packed with clearly described tips for leading creative teams. As I read Belsky’s advice on a “rewards overhaul,” I was reminded of Aubrey Daniels’ indictment of the traditional forms of reward in OOPS! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money. Both authors note that frequent and noncompetitive positive reinforcement for all members of a task force is far more beneficial than awarding Employee of the Month recognition, for example. Belsky suggests short-term rewards based on employee/team member interests and organizational culture to keep everyone motivated. He also notes that incorporating an element of play and humor in projects keeps team members engaged.

Another strong motivator is giving team members public recognition for their contributions to a successful project. He illustrates with the story of Joshua Prince-Ramus, an architect whose firm designed and built the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre in Dallas. At an inaugural event, Prince-Ramus made the point that the new building was a result of “We, not me.” The statement was not a momentary lapse into humility because later when a client attributed the firm’s success to Prince-Ramus in a brochure, he adamantly insisted that it list instead the names of all the architects who had been involved in the project.

While Belsky emphasizes the importance of listening to differences of opinion and learning even from heated conflict, he takes time to highlight the importance of guidance through appreciation. He tells of his experience in a class taught by Jay O’Callahan, a world-renowned storyteller. O’Callahan’s teaching technique was to have group members tell a story and then receive feedback from the hearers. He had, however, banned constructive feedback and asked class members to voice “appreciations.” Belsky found this method remarkably productive. He states, “The exchange of appreciations is meant to help you build upon your strengths, with the underlying assumption that creative craft is made extraordinary through developing your strengths rather than obsessing over your weaknesses.”

The last chapter offers advice in the most difficult area–self-leadership. The author admonishes creatives to develop self-awareness, learn to tolerate ambiguity, accumulate experience through understanding their failures, and avoid narcissism. He also notes the importance of “contrarianism” and the willingness to be deviant–making choices that many may believe unconventional and in some cases unwise. Of course, he does not suggest thoughtless actions driven by emotion; these are decisions driven by considered deliberation.

I could chatter on, but I think you’ve got the idea: it is definitely a book worth reading. I’m hoping I can get Joe to devour its contents and put Belsky’s advice into practice!

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