Scott Belsky: An interview by Bob Morris

BelskyScott Belsky believes that the greatest breakthroughs across all industries are a result of creative people and teams that are especially productive. As such, he has committed his professional life to help organize creative individuals, teams, and networks. He is the founder and CEO of Behance, a company that develops products and services to organize the creative world. He is also the author of Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision & Reality, published by Portfolio/The Penguin Group in 2010. Behance’s first product, the Behance Network, has become the leading online platform for creative professionals. The Network receives more than four million visitors every month and has become one of the most efficient platforms for creative professionals to broadcast their work to top agencies, fans, peers, and recruiters.

In 2008, Behance launched Action Method, a revolutionary “action management” system that has replaced traditional project management practices throughout the creative professional world and beyond. Prior to founding Behance, Belsky helped grow the Pine Street Leadership Development Initiative at Goldman, Sachs & Co. He is also the founder and Chair of an international leadership development network and serves on the Board of Cornell University’s Entrepreneurship Program. Belsky’s education is in design, environmental economics, and business. He attended Cornell University as an undergraduate and received his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He also hopes to increase “productive creativity” in the nonprofit world through his involvement on various nonprofit and foundation boards and currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Reboot and is a Director for the Kaplan Foundation. He lives and works in New York City.

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Morris: In recent years, you have conducted dozens of structured interviews of, and have been engaged in hundreds of conversations with, some of the world’s most creative people as well as with those who are widely recognized as authorities on creativity. Is there agreement (or at least a consensus of opinion) on what creativity is and does as opposed to what innovation is and does?

Belsky: My focus has actually been on those that routinely execute their ideas. I believe that the quality of the idea (unfortunately) has very little to do with whether or not the idea is made to happen. Over the course of building Behance and writing Making Ideas Happen, I focused on the most productive people and teams in the creative world. I wanted to find the anomalies – those that make their ideas time and time again. The people I met were living examples of WHY organization and leadership skills are a competitive advantage in the creative world. So, I would say that there was consensus of opinion that its all about the execution. Even the legendary creative minds that I met – artists and otherwise – admitted this

Morris: When and why did you found Behance?

Belsky: I was most inspired by a sense of frustration. There is so much discussion in the creative world about inspiration and creativity, but very little discussion about organization and execution. 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. We 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.

Morris: Since then, to what extent has its original mission changed?

Belsky: Actually very little. We have begun to use additional mediums to do it, but our original mission “to organize and empower the creative world to make ideas happen” still rings true and governs everything that we do.

Morris: My own opinion is that the most valuable business lessons are also the most valuable life lessons. For example, asking the right questions, focusing on what is most important, and nourishing mutual respect and trust in relationships. Do you agree with me that the same principles of creativity that are most effective at work are also most effective in one’s personal life?

Belsky: Yes, I agree. I think that creative projects are creative projects – regardless of whether they are at work or at home. And, when it comes to finishing creative projects, we face a common set of obstacles across the board.

Morris: What are the Behance Network and its primary mission?

Belsky: Our goal with the Behance Network was to maximize exposure and help organize the creative world’s work. Tapping the forces of community is critical to making ideas happen. The Network was designed to facilitate this. When we interview some of the world’s leading recruiters and agencies, they complain about typical “portfolio sites” and how difficult it is to organize and navigate creative talent. We developed to be a neutral, powerful platform that organizes creative work based on location, field, and – to some degree – quality. was NOT designed to be a “social network.” We don’t use the word “friends” in Behance. Instead, the platform is designed to push careers forward. When you add a new project to your portfolio, it is automatically displayed in any other network you are a part of (such as AIGA or MTV) as well as other galleries, circles, and collections across the web. You maintain complete control and ownership of your work, you select privacy and copyright settings, and you are always associated with your content. Morris: Now please focus on your brilliant book, Making Ideas Happen. As I began to read it, I was immediately reminded of two observations, the first by Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Years later, Peter Drucker observed, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” There seems to be no shortage of ideas in today’s business world. The challenge is to select the best of them and then execute them effectively. Why do most people fail that challenge?

Belsky: You’re right, there is no shortage of ideas. In fact, the creative class is thriving. The conundrum is that the people with the most ideas inherently face the greatest obstacles to making them happen. Why? Because the creative person’s essence is to think of new ideas at the expense of completing old ones. I call it “idea-to-idea syndrome.” Idea generation can easily become an addiction that we turn to during the doldrums of project management. As a result, most ideas never happen. There are more half-written novels in the world than there are novels. The mechanics of execution are not romantic, but they transform vision into reality. They are worthy of discussion!

Morris: Early on in the narrative, you assert that having an idea “is just a small part of the process, perhaps only 1 percent of the journey.” Please explain.

Belsky: Thomas Edison famously quipped “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” This book is about everything you do after having the idea; the 99%. After any occasion of creativity, you embark on a long journey to make something tangible. Ironically, this vast journey doesn’t get lots of attention. In the start of the book, I seek to dispel the myth that idea happen because they are great. I want people to understand that an idea, on its own, is insignificant.

Morris: What can an organization do to help both individuals and teams to generate better ideas and then execute them more effectively? To what extent can the generation of ideas be institutionalized?

Belsky: One contribution that organizations can provide is the powerful force of accountability. One great advantage of pursuing bold ideas within a larger organization is the benefit of expectations and being measured. The momentum behind bold long-term projects is likely to dissipate without incentives (or threats) to keep you engaged. Of course, organizations have incentive systems built in. In fact, many independent creative minds construct their own “organizations” to foster accountability. One example is writing groups, where writers consistently meet to share their manuscripts. Gatherings typically end with deadlines upon which each writer commits to share their progress.

Morris: I commend you on your skillful use of quotations as head notes on the first page of a new chapter. For example, from Igor Stravinsky: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees ones of the claims that shackle the spirit.” Presumably what he calls “the narrow frame” is self-imposed. If so, why are such constraints essential to “making ideas happen”?

Belsky: One theme throughout the book is the connection between our creative essence and the negative tendencies that accompany it. To make ideas happen, we must, to some extent, compromise some of the natural tendencies we possess. One great and difficult compromise is to constrain idea generation and empower the influence of skeptics. When we aren’t given limits, we must seek them. A “dream brief” from a client without any budget or time limitation is, in fact, a nightmare.

Morris: What are the core principles of the Action Method and how does this method differ from many of the traditional practices of project management?

Belsky: The premise of the Action Method is that we should live and work with a bias toward action. We should also use design to brew our own approach to managing projects that we are likely to stay loyal to over time. As I met with creative leaders and teams that were especially productive, I tried to identify the common elements of their systems. The Action Method represents the shared practices that I observed. Every project in life can ultimately be reduced to just three primary elements: Action Steps, Backburner Items, and References. Action Steps are succinct tasks that start with verbs. They should be kept separate from your notes and sketches. Backburner Items are ideas that come up during a brainstorm or on the run that are not actionable but may someday be. Backburner Items should be collected in a central location and should be revisit periodically through some sort of ritual, which I explain in the book. The third element of every project is References – the articles, notes, and other stuff that collects around you. It turns out that References are overrated. Rather than spend tons of time organizing your notes, consider keeping a chronological file where all your notes are simply filed chronologically (not by project name or other means). In the age of digital calendars, you can search for any meeting and quickly find the notes taken on that date.

Morris: What does it mean to “foster an immune system that kills ideas”?

Belsky: Many teams suffer from a loss of productivity when a new idea is prematurely pursued. When new ideas come up, it is important to compartmentalize them – especially when they appear mid-project. The best teams have a balance of “dreamers” and “doers.” The dreamers constantly think up new ideas, and the doers serve as the team’s skeptics – the immune system that kills off the ideas that could distract the team from the tasks at hand. Much like a human body’s immune system kills off anything foreign and new, the creative team’s immune system should function accordingly. The great exception for the human body is during an organ transplant, when the patient’s immune system is suppressed as to not reject the new organ. Similarly, in the creative environment, you need to suppress the skeptics during the rare occasions of brainstorming! But, in the everyday workflow, the skeptics must be empowered to do their job.

Morris: What is essential to effective “self-leadership”?

Belsky: I think the most critical piece is self-awareness. The obstacles (and excuses) that get in the way of making ideas happen are tied to your insecurities, fears, and negative tendencies. Recognizing these setbacks is the first step.

Morris: Wbich question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Belsky: “What do you want this book to do for the world?” I hope the book prompts more discussion about organization and execution in the creative world. I think there is too much emphasis on inspiration and the sources of creativity – the romantic pursuit of ideas – rather than on the execution. I also hope that readers leave with at least 3-5 behaviors that they will do differently in their creative projects. The book is full of practical tips that I’ve observed across industries. And while nobody will adopt all of them, I do think that a few critical tweaks can make all the difference.

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