Creativity and execution

I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most brilliant people on the planet across several industries, and have often marveled they they are not the most successful.

“People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don’t know when to quit.”

George Allen,  NFL Coach

Tenacity. Give me a half-baked idea that gets to market over the perfect idea stuck on a whiteboard.

“A little less conversation, a little more action.”

Elvis Presley

It really is possible to talk an idea to death. In business school they place a huge emphasis on business plans. Business plans serve a singular purpose. They validate ideas, but not through addressable market analysis and discounted cash flows. If you’re still passionate about your idea after all that analysis, odds are it’s a pretty good idea.

Every book on entrepreneurship tells the reader the business plan is a living document. Yeah, it lives in some folder on some hard disk. The most action it sees is getting scanned for viruses once a month.

Making the magic happen

After almost three years working among some of the best product managers, designers, and engineers at Avid, I’ve learned that great ideas will always come. We joke that if you build a company around a bunch of rock musicians and filmmakers cool shit is bound to happen. But the fact is that emphasis on execution is the path to success. Creative people instinctively hate process, but a healthy dose of process can be liberating. Media Composer 5.x and Pro Tools 9 were conceived from brilliant ideas, but they were born on ruthless execution.

Every effective team in any company has its own tricks. Here are a few I’ve seen work over the years.

Write it down

Creative people are easily distracted. The trick is to manage the distractions, and the best way to do that is to record everything. That stray thought, although profoundly brilliant, will hang around much longer if you’re afraid of losing it. Jot it down. Record a voice memo. Anything. What’s important is that you find a tool you enjoy using. Most productivity gurus recommend having one, single repository. That’s never worked for me. I use paper notebooks (with numbered pages), Livescribe notebooks, online notebooks, Post-its, photo albums on my phone, and good, old file folders. My index for this system lives online in an Evernote notebook.

Though it sounds like I use a confusing jumble of tools, it’s really a simple system.

  • Old fashioned computation notebook: I use the numbered graph paper pages for sketching. I often staple magazine clippings, Post-It notes, and other paper items to the pages. (I don’t use Livescribe notebooks this way simply because the electronically archivable dot paper notebooks are so damn expensive.)
  • Livescribe notebook: I use these mostly for meeting notes. The smart pens have built-in audio recorders, so that as I fall behind in my note taking I can start recording. The ability to electronically search hand-written notes in invaluable.
  • Blackberry: The camera records whiteboards, clever billboards, store displays, movie posters, and book covers. Anything I need to be reminded of. At the end of every week or so, I take what I want to keep and upload it to Evernote or Flickr.
  • Evernote: Once an idea gains some traction its detritus is gathered into a single entry in the online notebook. Every few days I catalog all the stuff I’ve recorded that’s worth keeping in Evernote. I just add a note on a topic and index where all the physical and electronic clippings live. Evernote’s super fast at searching hundreds of pages of notes. (It’s worth mentioning here that Springpad is another online notebook I use frequently. I find it stores personal data like restaurants, movies, etc. better than Evernote.)

As confusing and cluttered as this hodgepodge of recording methods sounds, it’s remarkably simple. And it’s visual, so it can be very inspiring.

Have a framework for action

Personal productivity methodologies like GTD (Getting Things Done) and Action Method are more like cults than tools, but if you take the parts of them you like and ignore the stuff that just feels too OCD-ish, they can be effective. OK, I admit I’m a recovering GTD addict. Action Method is now my tool of choice — simply because it looks like Greenhopper’s Jira, the tool we use to track Agile/Scrum development at Avid. At the end of the day it’s an online to-do list that cost $99/year unless you can persuade a fair number of colleagues to use its collaboration features. Most people will do just as well with the free, but visually ugly Voo2do.

Set aside playtime

My mid-afternoon lulls are the stuff of legend. I crash like no one else I know. So I set aside the time from about 2:00 to 3:30 as creative exploration time. I’m not going to get anything productive done in that time, so I find a way to put it to use. That includes those oft-forbidden office activities such as scanning Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Once I was caught perusing Monster. I was trying to figure out what other companies in our space were working on by checking out what positions they were filling in the down economy, but I’m not sure my colleague believed that at the time.

Have a sacred creative space (or two)

Ideally your special place is at the office, but as Jason Fried of 37 Signals noted in his TED talk Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work, that’s rarely the case. Go ahead, use your first dedicated playtime to watch Fried’s talk.

My sacred creative space is my home office. It’s in the corner of the basement – away from the madding crowd. It’s got a great view of the conservation land behind my house for me to stare out at and ponder great things. But what’s really special is that I’ve set up two workspaces in it – one for the left brain, and one for the right.

The left-brained desk has my PC laptop and an iMac with all the expected office software. The desk phone and mobile phone are kept there. It’s where I take Skype and iChat meetings, and where I make conference calls. The right-brained desk and rack contains all my audio and video gear for Media Composer and Pro Tools. It’s where I edit my digital photos, and where I build my experimental little apps. It’s where I try out competitors’ products, and play meaningless games. Nothing to be done under deadline is taken on at that desk. It’s play space.

It’s amazing how my attitude, my posture, and my frame of mind change depending on the chair I occupy.  When in the work chair, it’s all about execution. When the going gets tough, I use the other chair as a carrot.

Work where you can get stuff done

Unfortunately most offices are not conducive to creativity. Has anyone ever had a good idea in an hour meeting with more more than a few people in the room? Work at home. Work at Starbucks. Work in the cafeteria. Just get away from Outlook.

Good luck. Please feel free to add comments about what works for you.


One Thought on “Creativity and execution

  1. I have enjoyed reading your insights since you worked at the DV mag.

    Here’s another quote that encapsulates, in a somewhat blunt fashion, some of the train of thought expressed in your post:

    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “press on” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”

    Calvin Coolidge

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