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How to Recognize and Act on Your Best Business Ideas

This story appears in the September 2012 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
Get Inspired
Chris Philpot

Stop Killing Your Ideas

"Ideas," John Steinbeck once said, "are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen."

Ideas for business--good and bad--tend to proliferate at a dizzying speed. But how exactly do you handle them?

When inspiration strikes, there are tools and lessons you can apply to ensure you get the best results. We've talked to experts and gone through the annals of business history to find the best ways to help you turn your ideas into solid gold.

So don't let the big one get away. Because it's those who manage to convert abstraction into concrete solutions who can truly call themselves entrepreneurs.

Most ideas don't stand a chance.

And it's our fault. We put them off to deal with the constant flow of life's seemingly urgent little things. Or, burdened by the doldrums of project management and the effort it takes to move ideas forward, we abandon them in favor of something easier, newer or more immediately satisfying.

Welcome to the project plateau, the point at which creative excitement wanes and the pain of deadlines takes over. This process can easily repeat itself ad infinitum, preventing you from ever reaching your most potentially meaningful goals.

Until ideas are pushed forward, until they're made to happen, they're little more than air. Ideas become solid things only when we apply other forces to them: organization, community and leadership.

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Entrepreneurs must develop the capacity to drive ideas forward, against all odds. That means taking a new approach to projects, tweaking the ways in which you manage your energy and short-circuiting the old-school reward system. (New ideas are fun; old ideas are too much work.)

For my book, Making Ideas Happen, I talked to an incredible group of creative people who consistently turn concepts into reality. Ready to do the same?

Schedule time to think.

Without realizing it, most of us are living a life of reactionary work flow. We're constantly bombarded with communications--e-mails, texts, tweets, Facebook posts, phone calls, instant messages--and instead of using our energy in a proactive way, we spend it reacting, living at the mercy of the latest bit of incoming information.

Some of the most productive people I've met schedule windows of non-stimulation into their days. Quite simply, they minimize e-mail and other incoming communications for two- or three-hour slots. But they don't use the time for daily to-dos; they use it to focus on long-term projects that require research and deep thought.

Set up three files for each idea.

The implementation process for most ideas will have three components: action steps, back-burner items and references.

Action steps are succinct tasks--the ones on your list that start with verbs. File them separately from your notes and sketches.

Back-burner items are ideas that come up during a brainstorm or on the run that you can't (or shouldn't) act on immediately, but could be useful later. Collect them in a central location and review them regularly. One leader I know prints out his back-burner list--which he keeps on a running Word document--on the first Sunday of every month. He crosses out items that have become irrelevant, moves others to his list of action steps and leaves some alone for the future.

References are the articles, notes and other stuff you collect for the idea. You don't need to devote much time to organizing your notes. Instead, keep a chronological file and rely on your software's search function to find what you need.

Measure meetings with action steps.

If you consider what your time is worth, regularly scheduled status meetings can be costly interruptions. Any meeting that closes without the proposal of new action steps would have been more efficient as a voice mail or e-mail.

End meetings by having each colleague or client share the next specific tasks they will complete as you work toward your common goal. The exercise will make it immediately clear what's missing, what's misunderstood and whether there are redundancies. Stating action steps out loud also breeds a sense of accountability.

Keep moving forward.

Don't let inertia kill your ideas. Plod ahead. There's no better way to show your ideas (and yourself) some respect.

Scott Belsky

Written By

Scott Belsky has spent more than a decade leading in the worlds of technology, design and startups. Now the chief product officer of Adobe, he is the founder of Behance, an investor and product advisor for many of today's top startups, and author of The Messy Middle.