Making Ideas Happen: Scott Belsky

July 29, 2010

"Society shuns what society celebrates."

I grew up noticing the injustice around me, feeling helpless to change anything. Maybe it was because I emerged from a highly religious environment where everyone was supposed to turn the other cheek, love thy neighbor, and forgive ad nauseum.

In my impressionable mind, to be successful at loving all my neighbors, I had to find something lovable in each one--so that's what I desperately tried to do. Sometimes that took a lot of observation, creativity, and free association on my part.  Everyone deserves to be loved, but for a kid experiencing a bunch of crazy, mixed-up adults saying one thing and doing another, it was often tough, confusing, and downright impossible. The kid develops creative coping mechanisms to achieve those challenging love-thy-neighbor goals.

When a kid like that grows up and finds herself in the heart of corporate America, guess what happens? In the midst of office politics, corporate initiatives, raising bars, employee evaluations, and a million directives, that kid observes and uses the same creative gifts to navigate tricky waters while also trying to accomplish company goals. Let's face it, sometimes the office can be like a dysfunctional family.

Well, guess what? Many sectors of corporate America don't always appreciate the creative soul.  Sure, I'm far from perfect, but my approach has always been based on a combination of brains, tenacity, and creativity:  
  • Let's see how we can miraculously accomplish the goals with what they've given us to work with. 
  • Let's see how we can make this team super high functioning when our numbers are few but our directives are numerous. 
  • Let's see how we can generate usable data with sub-optimal tools and little time. 
  • Then let's go a step further and see how we might be able to avoid these issues next time. 
Anyone who says creativity isn't an asset in industry is missing a few IQ points.

Aside from the day to day challenges in the workplace, there's also product development. It's a given that those involved in coming up with innovative gadgets and whirligigs should be creative, right?  I often wonder what roadblocks those creative souls crash into on the way to making all their fantastic ideas happen.  Is it easy for them?  Or could it be that the pervasive corporate aversion to risk taking, and the push of ongoing operations dampens their efforts as well?  Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to identify and fully utilize all the creativity stuffed within the dark bowels of corporate America? 

My guest today, Scott Belsky, believes there is a way.  His book, Making Ideas Happen, focuses on how to tap into, organize, and execute creative ideas, particularly in business environments.

I find Scott's work fascinating. I'm a creative who ended up with degrees in Biology and Quality Systems, and spent twenty years in the pharmaceutical industry. A few years ago, I wrote a book for McGraw-Hill on how to apply the underlying concepts of Six Sigma (a popular quality management methodology) in day-to-day work--no matter who you are or what responsibilities you hold. In my study and work in corporate quality systems, I rarely came across a focus on creativity.

Here's an idea! Perhaps creativity should be added to the most common underlying concepts found in the major quality philosophies and methodologies that are driving American industry forward: customer focus, collaboration, data-driven management, process focus, and strategic planning.

When I read about Scott and his book in Newsweek, I was interested in interviewing him both from a creative and quality systems perspective. He has identified a gap that I've personally struggled with and have had to work around in various ways over the years.

As the kid who was taught to turn the other cheek and love my neighbor, I put my best foot forward every single time I was asked to keep my head in the corporate box while pleasing my superiors, handing them deliverable after deliverable, and keeping my overworked employees happy.  The creative woman who is blind to boxes has been waiting for Scott for some time now.

She is cheering!

What's your story in a nutshell? Why are you into creativity, and how did your interest evolve into building a company that develops products and services for creative industries?

I did study some design as an undergrad, and I always had a fascination with business and the creative industries. There are two things that really inspired me to start Behance:

1) The stuff that makes our lives interesting - the art, the design, and all of the original content - is all created by the creative professional community. But, unfortunately, creatives in particular face unique obstacles when it comes to actually making their ideas happen.

2) There is SO MUCH discussion in the creative world about inspiration and creativity, but very little discussion about organization and execution. I found this VERY frustrating. It seemed that creative professionals would become more effective - and thus benefit society even more - with assistance on execution, efficient self-promotion, and organization.

I was fortunate enough to meet Matias Corea, our Chief of Design, in the early days of the idea. Together, we discussed the role of design in solving these frustrations and created Behance with a very specific mission: To organize the creative world. We are not trying to increase creativity. On the contrary, we are trying to help creative leaders harness their own creativity and actually make ideas happen.

I think it's safe to assume you're a highly creative yourself. Were your current philosophies and methods around creativity developed through your own trial and error? If so, can you tell us about that?

My own experience as an entrepreneur and a practitioner of idea generation/execution has certainly proved a valuable laboratory. But I must credit the research - and countless interviews - that went into my book Making Ideas Happen as the most helpful base for me to learn how to be a productive creative and run a productive business in the creative industry.

I worked in corporate America for twenty years and was often frustrated by the lack of or fear of creativity. It often seemed that the unwritten rule was: Think outside the box! -- as long as you stay within the distinct parameters we've set for you by creating a tiny bit bigger box. Can any industry or company be a creative one, and if so, what so often holds them back?

Yes. Two big things that hold large companies back:

1) Risk. When you are big and successful, the potential costs of taking risk often outweigh the benefits. This stifles innovation and encourages us to stay close to the status quo.

2) Gravitational Force of Operations. When you're running a large business, it is hard to focus sufficient energy on NEW ideas because the daily demands and "urgent" stuff is always prioritized over long-term strategic initiatives.

I once had a new boss, a Vice President, ask me, "So what is unique about you? What is the one, most important thing you'd like me to tell the board about you?" I thought it over and replied, "I'm creative." She literally laughed in my face because apparently that trait held little value to her and her colleagues. A sad story, in my opinion. (Note: She promoted me within a year for my ability to get things done in a challenging environment.) What does corporate American lose the most when creativity is undervalued or squelched?

Well, I do believe that the ability to execute and push ideas forward is as (if not more) important than the ideas themselves. But creativity is also the source of answers to our gravest problems. Corporate America will lose the global fight for innovation across industries if creativity is not valued, hired for, and then supported.

I've also been concerned about the often difficult team mix of creative and more traditional thinkers in the workplace. Both are valuable to team success. Do your philosophies and suggested methods around creativity touch on this particular topic and how?

Absolutely. In my book I try to describe the three types - Dreamers, Doers, and the Incrementalists.

The Dreamers have the tendency to always think of a new idea - and jump from idea to idea to idea.

Doers have the tendency to focus on the practicalities; and ground ideas with restraints like budget, timeline, etc...

The Incrementalists have the ability to shift from Dreamer mode - to Doer Mode - to Dreamer, etc... But Incrementalists get in trouble when they create too many projects and are unable to scale any one of them.

No doubt, a team with a mix of people that round off each others tendencies is the best possible chemistry.

Have you ever had to deal with people failing to understand your own creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

All the time. Especially in the beginning... The way I look at it: If everyone understood the value of what I was doing, it wouldn't be new or lucrative enough to pursue. Society shuns what society celebrates. College drop-outs who leave to pursue their ideas are doubted by society until they are celebrated once they start Microsoft or Apple.

Gain confidence from doubt. Listen to feedback, but take it all with a grain of salt.

I often ask if there is a difference between being talented and being creative. What are your thoughts on this and how does the distinction play out in the workplace?

Yes, there is a difference. Talent can relate to specific skills, but does not necessarily mean that one uses them to generate new ideas and solve non-traditional problems.

In your opinion, what qualities does an organization (and perhaps an individual) need to be successful in transforming an great idea into reality?

I believe there are three main FORCES that make ideas happen, noticeably ORGANIZATION, COMMUNAL FORCES, AND LEADERSHIP CAPABILITY. The most productive leaders and teams across the creative industries have found ways to tap into these forces. Structure, it turns out, is a competitive advantage (even though we, as creatives, sometimes despise it).

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Nothing extraordinary is ever achieved through ordinary means. Whenever I regress to the way things were done, or should be done, or the status quo...I remind myself of this truth.

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