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How to Overcome Idea-to-idea Syndrome How to Overcome Idea-to-idea Syndrome

How to Overcome Idea-to-idea Syndrome

by Scott Belsky
March 5, 2010


In this new series, Scott Belsky offers practical advice on how to bring great ideas to life.


Most ideas never fully happen. It's a sad truth.

There are probably more half-written novels in the world than there are novels, and the majority of new business ideas and solutions to society's gravest problems will never see the light of day.

Yes, you may conceive something brilliant, great execution is rare: Without sound leadership, our natural creative tendencies become obstacles. Idealists, driven by a passion for what is right and good, are especially susceptible to obstacles that obstruct our progress.

"Making Good Ideas Happen" is the first in a series of columns about transforming well-intentioned vision into reality. We will examine how some individuals and teams are defying the odds and pushing the world forward with their ideas. We will not talk about ideas. No inspiration here! Instead, we will focus on the key realizations and methods that are making ideas happen.

Meet Michael Karnjanaprakorn. You might know Karnjanaprakorn for the social innovation conference known as The Feast, the "professional introduction" service By Association, or the new creative agency Lovely Day-to name only a few of his projects. Karnjanaprakorn is a creative genius, and all of his businesses are fascinating. But was his surplus of great ideas becoming a vice?

I asked him just that over lunch recently: Would the sheer quantity of his projects compromise the impact he would ultimately make? Karnjanaprakorn shared the same concerns. He had plans for his next conference, but they were muddled by some major decisions he needed to make for By Association. He was also considering a few other opportunities that pulled his attention elsewhere. As he went through the list, I started to lose track of his ultimate goal, and I suspect he did as well. Through his creativity and bold decision to pursue his ideas full-time, Karnjanaprakorn had fallen into a trap common among entrepreneurs and social innovators: He had developed a bout of "idea-to-idea syndrome" coupled with a dangerous "no idea left behind" mentality.

A surplus of ideas is as dangerous as a drought.

Idea-to-idea syndrome is the tendency to launch new ideas while still executing other ideas. As soon as an idea becomes an active project, we become burdened by the minutia of execution. Long days and late nights cause us to get lost in what I have come to call the "project plateau"-the part of a project when excitement and energy run low and the end is still out of sight. The quickest escape from the project plateau is simple. Conceive a new idea. Immediately, when you get excited about something new and shiny, your hopes lift as your creative juices kick in. But, as a result, your previous idea is left stranded in the project plateau amidst other carcasses of abandoned ideas.

You know someone is plagued with idea-to-idea syndrome when they have multiple active-yet-abandoned projects. There will always be one project-the latest one-that is getting the spotlight. And then, soon, another idea will take its place.

Karnjanaprakorn was aware that his projects were at risk. Over lunch, we spoke about reallocating his energy. He would need to either kill some of his projects or hand over the reigns to potential partners. But still, he struggled to identify his top project and kept coming up with new ideas.

Idea-to-idea syndrome becomes even more dangerous when you have a "no idea left behind" mentality. It is awfully hard to kill something that you conceived. When I work with entrepreneurs and other creative professionals, I often notice side projects that were (barely) maintained for years more for sentimentality than significance.

Much like pruning a tree's branches to strengthen the trunk, if you kill off a few of your side projects, your primary projects will get more nourishment and flourish.

How to develop an immune system.

Your body is protected by a powerful immune system that, when it is working properly, kills off anything foreign. Viruses and other foreign pathogens meet a swift death. Similarly, as a creative individual, you will need to develop an immune system that kills off premature or distracting ideas. Of course, when you're actually brainstorming, you will want to suppress your immune system to allow for the free-flow of ideas good and bad, but during day-to-day execution, only your immune system will fend off a bout of idea-to-idea syndrome.

Thomas Edison knew what he was talking about when he famously quipped, "genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." He was saying that all great achievements are the result of tireless execution. Inspiration should be, to some degree, restrained-especially for those of us who are addicted to it.

The greatest partnerships in the creative world involve a balance of dreamers and doers. Dreamers are motivated by visions of the future while doers are focused on the task at hand and get nervous when anything new gets in the way. By hiring and empowering skeptics to be critical and challenge our love for new ideas, we can keep long-term projects alive.

If you work solo, then try to involve "sober monitors" when you consider new ideas. We all know people that don't get high on inspiration and prefer to live a more grounded and cautious existence. Truth is, we typically exclude them from our creative endeavors. They're just not as fun. However, their role is absolutely critical when it comes to making ideas happen.

For his part, Karnjanaprakorn has made some major improvements. He divided up his projects with an action-oriented partner, and he has committed himself to saying no to the majority of new opportunities and ideas that come up. He explains, "When your purpose and mission in life is to make the world a better place, it's really easy to get distracted and overbook yourself. You'll paralyze yourself and end up doing no good." Karnjanaprakorn has also taken some practical steps to increase his focus and productivity. For starters, he has completely cut out meetings during the day that have no intended outcome. When people contact him out of the blue-or when a meeting doesn't have a clear agenda-he politely declines. The problem, as Karnjanaprakorn describes it, is that everybody, especially in the world of social innovation, loves to talk about changing the world. "The problem for me is that I get excited about a lot of these ideas and it gets me sidetracked," he says.

Karnjanaprakorn's story illuminates the creative mind's struggle to stay loyal to any one particular idea long enough to make it happen. Passion, sensitivity, and genuine interest all feed our creativity and inspire new ideas. The sensation of idea generation is intoxicating-so much so that you can get a bit inebriated.

Productive idealists recognize the value of building an immune system and resisting the seduction of creative flings that seldom last.

Scott Belsky studies productive people and teams in the creative world. He is the Founder and CEO of Behance, oversees The 99% think tank, and is the author of Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming The Obstacles Between Vision & Reality, which will be published in April.

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