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Making Ideas Happen

Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky

On the idea / execution scale I definitely lean towards the idea side and enjoyed this book. Here are my favourite parts:

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We learned that these teams and individuals did not arrive at success through a mysterious spark of creative genius. Rather, the people who consistently make ideas happen utilize many of the same best practices. Specifically, we discovered that the most productive creative individuals and teams have a lot in common when it comes to (1) organization and relentless execution, (2) engaging peers and leveraging communal forces, and (3) strategies for leading creative pursuits. While many of us spend too much energy searching for the next great idea, my research shows that we would be better served by developing the capacity to make ideas happen—a capacity that endures over time.

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As psychologist Keith Sawyer, a protégé of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of the renowned creativity book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience), writes in his 2007 book Group Genius, “All great inventions emerge from a long sequence of small sparks; the first idea often isn’t all that good, but thanks to collaboration it later sparks another idea, or it’s reinterpreted in an unexpected way. Collaboration brings small sparks together to generate breakthrough innovation.”

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Across the hundreds of interviews conducted during the research for this book, no individual or team I met was without frustration. Anything new inherently works against the grain. And working against the grain is uncomfortable.

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Rather than ask you to emulate a static process that works for others, I will instead present you with a set of core elements to strengthen your existing process.

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We have found that even within large bureaucratic companies with elaborate, formal project management systems, the most productive people run their own parallel processes to accomplish projects more flexibly. These homegrown systems share a common set of principles:

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A relentless bias toward action pushes ideas forward.

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For each idea, you must capture and highlight your “Action Steps.”

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Stuff that is actionable must be made personal.

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When tasks are written in your own handwriting, in your own idiom, they remain familiar and are more likely to be executed.

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Taking and organizing extensive notes aren’t worth the effort.

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If you simply capture and then tend to the actions required for a project, you are already way ahead of the game.

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Use design-centric systems to stay organized.

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Organize in the context of projects, not location.

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Every project in life can be reduced into these three primary components. Action Steps are the specific, concrete tasks that inch you forward: redraft and send the memo, post the blog entry, pay the electricity bill, etc. References are any project-related handouts, sketches, notes, meeting minutes, manuals, Web sites, or ongoing discussions that you may want to refer back to. It is important to note that References are not actionable—they are simply there for reference when focusing on any particular project. Finally, there are Backburner Items—things that are not actionable now but may be someday. Perhaps it is an idea for a client for which there is no budget yet. Or maybe it is something you intend to do in a particular project at an unforeseen time in the future.

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Whether in a meeting, brainstorming session, chance conversation, article, dream, or eureka moment in the shower, you are generating Action Steps, References, and Backburner Items at a fast clip. Everything is associated with a project. Sadly, much of this output will be lost unless you capture it and assign it properly.

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Action Steps are specific things you must do to move an idea forward. The more clear and concrete an Action Step is, the less friction you will encounter trying to do it. If an Action Step is vague or complicated, you will probably skip over it to others on your list that are more straightforward. To avoid this, start each Action Step with a verb: Call programmer to discuss . . .

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The second type is “Ensure Action Steps.” Sometimes you will want to create an Action Step to ensure that something is completed properly in the future. Rather than being a nag to your team, you can create an Action Step that starts with the word “Ensure.” For example, “Ensure that Dave updated the article with the new title.”

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The last type of managerial Action Step is the “Awaiting Action Step”. When you leave a voicemail for someone, send a message to a potential customer, or respond to an e-mail and clear it from your in-box, you’re liable to forget to follow-up if the person fails to respond. By creating an Action Step that starts with “Awaiting,” you can keep track of every ball that is out of your court.

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some teams take a few minutes at the end of every meeting to go around the table and allow each person to recite the Action Steps that he or she captured. Doing so will almost always reveal a missed Action Step or a duplication on two people’s lists. This simple practice can save time and prevent situations in which, weeks later, people are wondering who was doing what or how something got lost in the shuffle.

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Postrel explains, “The difference lay not in ‘information processing’ but in ‘affect,’ in how full-color monitors made people feel about their work.” In other words, the aesthetics of the tools you use to make ideas happen matter.

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Create a Backburner ritual. Of course, putting stuff in your Backburner is not enough. You need to periodically revisit and curate the Backburner as time goes on. Make it a habit. One agency creative director I interviewed keeps his Backburner as a running Microsoft Word document on his computer. On the last Sunday of every month, he prints out this ten- or fifteen-page document and, pen in one hand and beer in the other, spends half an hour editing the list. As he reviews each entry, he either cuts it, keeps it, or—in some cases—turns the Backburner Item into a series of Action Steps. Consider making a recurring monthly “Backburner Review” appointment in your calendar.

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Set up your Backburner. Functionally, the Backburner is easy to employ. Set aside an area at the bottom or side of your notes—or perhaps a separate page—to capture Backburner Items that come up.

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If you were to place projects along the spectrum, the extremely important projects would be placed on the “Extreme” end of the spectrum and the others would be placed accordingly farther down toward “Idle.” Keep in mind that you are not placing your projects along the spectrum based on how much time you are spending on them. Rather, you are placing your projects according to how much energy they should receive based on their importance.

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Viewing your projects along an Energy Line prompts certain questions: How much of your time are you spending on what? Are you focused on the right things?

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An article by personal development specialist Keith Trickey describes how, when developing feature-length films, Disney implemented a staged process using three different rooms to foster ideas and then rigorously assess them:

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Room One. In this room, rampant idea generation was allowed without any restraints. The true essence of brainstorming— unrestrained thinking and throwing around ideas without limits—was supported without any doubts expressed.

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Room Two. The crazy ideas from Room One were aggregated and organized in Room Two, ultimately resulting in a storyboard chronicling events and general sketches of characters.

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Room Three. Known as the “sweat box,” Room Three was where the entire creative team would critically review the project without restraint. Given the fact that the ideas from individuals had already been combined in Room Two, the criticism in Room Three was never directed at one person—just at elements of the project.

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Rothstein’s gift is his ability to navigate corporate bureaucracies, multiple time zones, and various rungs of the corporate ladder to find information and serve his clients. He has no MBA, no souped-up technological solutions, and no magical powers. What Rothstein has is perseverance and a simple conviction that he adheres to with an almost religious fervor: he follows up like crazy. “I’m starting to believe that life is just about following up,” Rothstein confided to me on a hot August evening at a Thai restaurant in New York City. “There’s this one guy that I was paired up with to lead a recruiting project. It wasn’t his real job, and it isn’t mine, but it’s something you do in a company to help out. It’s corporate citizenship. The problem was that this guy didn’t really care. I would send e-mails and a week would pass before a response. I would send drafts of a calendar for him to review and get no response. He obviously didn’t care much, but the project had to get done. At one point, more than a week passed without any feedback or collaboration. So, I forwarded the original e-mail again. Then, two days later, I reforwarded the forwarded e-mail. Then three days later I printed the e-mail out and I sent it FedEx overnight, with my quick notation at the top: ‘Just wanted to follow up.—Jesse.’ He finally got back to me, and he did quite a bit of the work himself.”

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The inspiration to generate ideas comes easy, but the inspiration to take action is more rare. Especially amidst heavy, burdensome projects with hundreds of Action Steps and milestones, it is emotionally invigorating to surround yourself with progress. Why throw away the evidence of your achievements when you can create an inspiring monument to getting stuff done? Some teams, including the Behance team, have created “Done Walls” covered with old Action Steps.

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YOUR COMMUNITY IS all around you—your team, mentors, clients or customers, collaborators, and of course your family and friends. Your community will seldom understand your idea in the beginning, but it will help make it real in the end. Every idea has constituents—members of your community who hold a stake. It is your job to engage and make use of your idea’s constituents.

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For every project, Bennett finds himself a partner. Partnerships are so important to him that he doesn’t pursue an idea until he identifies the right partner.

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Steffen encourages leaders to send an e-mail to each person on their team—as well as to key clients—requesting a few feedback points for each participant under the headings START, STOP, and CONTINUE. Each recipient is asked to share a few things that each of their colleagues and clients should START, STOP, and CONTINUE doing. People then return their lists to the team’s leader (except for the feedback about the leader, which is redirected to someone else on the team). The points under each heading are aggregated to identify the larger trends: what are most people suggesting that Scott START doing, STOP doing, and CONTINUE doing? Isolated points mentioned by only one person are discarded and the common themes are then shared in a personal meeting with each member of the team.

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The combination of an influential audience and updates on the progress of past wishes creates a very powerful yet unspoken sense of accountability for the new recipients. Every TED Prize recipient knows that, one year later, they will be showing their progress to the TED audience and the broader world.

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To understand how systems for accountability can be incorporated into a flexible work flow that suits idea generation, we should examine the emerging movement known as “coworking.” The notion of coworking is very simple. Professionals across industries—whether freelance or full-time telecommuters—gather in a neutral space to work together. It can be a coffee shop or an open office space that rents out desks. While the professionals may never collaborate, they share a work environment that fosters focus and professionalism. In some ways, coworking provides the benefits of an office environment without the costs. There is no boss on site, no face time, and no office politics. But everyone feels a slight pressure to stay focused. In addition, the exchange of best practices and the impromptu collaborations that are supposed to happen in the classic work environment flourish even more so among disparate coworkers.

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In his book The Medici Effect, Frans Johansson makes the case that an explosion of insight happens “at the intersection of different fields, cultures, and industries.”

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“At its best, marketing is building relationships—and learning.” When you go to lunch with people, when you ask for feedback and develop a relationship based on mutual exchange of information, it is optimized marketing. It is optimal because the intentions are multidimensional. You’re valuing the process of getting to know someone, learning something new, and, in the process, familiarizing them with your capabilities. Self-marketing, it seems, is akin to cross-pollination. You have the opportunity to communicate your objectives by seeking to understand those of others.

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You must take the task of marketing your strengths into your own hands. Once you accept responsibility for marketing yourself, you can start to mine for opportunities. Often, the opportunity to showcase your greatest strengths arises as a side project or extracurricular activity outside the scope of your official duties. Little problems pop up all the time that are, in fact, opportunities to which you can add a unique value. Fight the desire to wait for instructions, and learn to showcase your skills and expertise without an invitation.

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As Brier reflected on the interconnectedness of it all, he shared what he sees as a big problem in the media world. “People don’t understand that ‘monetization’ doesn’t happen directly,” he explained. “But if you get people to visit you, and they find that they like the experience, other opportunities will arise.” Brier wholeheartedly believes that people can visit you—and come to respect you—only if you put yourself out there in an authentic way.

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Identify your differentiating attributes. Self-marketing should start with identifying the strengths that differentiate you from others. Are you a designer who has a unique background in computer science or some other unrelated field? Did you spend time in other countries or develop certain skills while working with a well-known client? Are you particularly young—or old—relative to your peers? Make a list of your most differentiating attributes without judging how they might be perceived. Remember that unique features can be regarded as strengths or weaknesses depending on how they are communicated.

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For Noah Brier, this involved a continuing series of breakfasts and a few quick side projects that shared his perspective and talent with the world. For others, it may involve setting up a dynamic portfolio site, doing pro bono work for a nonprofit, or writing freelance articles for local newspapers.

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Brilliant creative minds become a single spot on the spectrum—102.3 or 98.5—and unless you’re right there with them, you’re unlikely to connect. Our frequency determines the other people to whom we are most receptive and connected to. As we stretch to connect with people at other frequencies, we must adjust how we communicate, present our ideas, and engage others.

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One of the best things you can do for your ideas is develop the capacity to tune in to the perspectives of others—and to help others tune in to yours. Interaction, whether it is with an individual or an audience, can be maximized by understanding who you are talking to. What excites them? What are they worried about? Just synthesizing this information will help you further engage those around you.

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Leaders of any creative endeavor should focus first on the things that only they can do—things that simply couldn’t be delegated to others.

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Another common problem faced by once-solo leaders is the desire to have your team just get the job done rather than learn how to do the job better. Remember, however, that the people who work for you are likely interested in more than money; they want to become experts. Besides being the leader, you need to be a teacher. You will want to find opportunities to engage your team members in whatever interests them, even if it is beyond the scope of their jobs.

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Leadership development is experiential. Through trial and error, good times and bad, we gradually become better leaders—but only if we are self-aware enough to notice when and why we falter. In this section of the book, I present best practices of great creative leaders as points of reference for your own personal journey. While leadership capacity is only enhanced through raw experience, we must always question our assumptions and compare various methods and convictions to our own.

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And finally, after much discussion on how we lead others, we will turn our focus inward. After all, some of the greatest obstacles we face in leadership lurk within us. The fortitude to learn from our experiences and take risks is a result of a very personal sense of self-awareness. As we seek to effectively lead others, we must become more effective leaders of ourselves.

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Unplug from the traditional rewards system.

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Stay engaged by setting up a system of incremental rewards.

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If you cannot completely overcome your obsession with short-term rewards, you must use it to your advantage by establishing a regimented series of near-term rewards—the psychological equivalent of grades, paychecks, and affirmations. Whether it means prizing the value of lessons learned, building games into your creative process, or getting gifts upon certain milestones of achievement, self-derived rewards make a big difference. One entrepreneur I interviewed cited the growing number of results from a Google search for his company’s name as a daily reward that his company sought for short-term encouragement. You must be creative in developing a set of incremental rewards that represent progress in long-term pursuits. You cannot ignore or completely escape the deeply ingrained short-term reward system within you. But you can become aware of what really motivates you and then tweak your incentives to sustain your long-term pursuits. We’ll examine some ways to mine alternative forms of compensation in the next few sections.

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With the WTC logos endeavor, the project became an ongoing game as Lee attempted to find at least one old NYC skyline logo every day. “Games,” Lee explains, “keep things simple and keep people engaged.”

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One game he plays with his students and colleagues throughout the day involves an ongoing e-mail exchange of links—little findings that stretch the mind in some way. The game is the hot pursuit of the most clever and engaging or surprising link. The process is both playful and deliberate. “It’s really fun, but at the same time it’s very important, because I think it breaks the routine of their work flow and brings their brains to something totally different,” Lee explains. “That’s how creativity usually works.”

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“Living at either end of the spectrum—spending your energy exclusively on all personal projects or all professional projects—will make you either poor or jaded,” he explains.

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The innate human desire for amusement is a powerful force that you should use to foster commitment and progress.

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As you assemble teams around creative projects, probe candidates for their true interests—whatever they may be—and then measure the extent to which the candidate has pursued those interests. Ask for specific examples and seek to understand the lapses of time between interest and action. When you stumble across an Initiator—someone who has passion, generates ideas, and tends to take action—recognize your good fortune. Nothing will assist your ideas more than a team of people who possess real initiative.

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As you cultivate your team’s immune system, you will want to differentiate between skeptics and cynics. Cynics cling to their doubts and are often unwilling to move away from their convictions. By contrast, skeptics are willing to embrace something new—they are just wary and critical at first. Though they are often undervalued, skeptics are an essential component of a healthy team, and leaders should cultivate their respect and influence.

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One approach is to have a bias toward considering ideas during brainstorming sessions and killing ideas when they come up randomly during execution.

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Fighting is uncomfortable, but consider the benefits of opposing perspectives duking it out. Imagine that the answer to a problem lies somewhere on a spectrum between A and B. The more arguing that takes place about both ends of the spectrum, the more likely it is that the complete terrain of possibilities will be adequately explored. By contrast, if the advocates for A just give up, then B becomes the default answer without any better solution being discovered in between.

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As the leader of a creative team, try to foster healthy debate between people with different levels of influence and experience. One helpful practice is to get everyone to share proposed solutions or ideas first, prior to having people react. Junior people go first, followed by alternative proposals from the more experienced members of the team. Then, as people share their reactions, be sure that all members of the team stay engaged throughout the exchange. When you notice shortness or impatience, confront it with a question about process—something along the lines of “How can we keep all options on the table?” or “Since we’re all trying to find the best solution, why are we getting impatient with each other?”

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These teams recognize that the purpose of disagreement is to more fully explore the options.

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When working with an extended team of stakeholders, Hennes believes that his job is to listen to the stories, gather knowledge about all of the viewpoints, and then identify what he calls the “extremes” that will differentiate the project. Of all the ideas that his team comes up with, Hennes tries to find the few critical extremes that he wants to hold on to, and then commits to compromising on much of the rest. Hennes explained to me that the extremes are the ideas that he feels will most distinguish the end result. As he endures the inevitable battery of critiques and requests for alterations to his plans for a project, he holds these extremes sacred.

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In many creative teams, especially in the creative agency world, I observed an “input by many, decisions by few” strategy. Leaders would engage opinions broadly, then make final decisions in small groups.

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“When I have ideas within the magazine, I don’t say, ‘You, you, and you, act on this idea,’” he explains. “What I do is I say, ‘Here’s an idea. Who’s interested?’ And, you know, I articulate it to the best of my ability and I evangelize and I get people all enthusiastic and do as good a selling job as I can, and very quickly people might say, ‘Man, that’s exactly what I was thinking about!’ . . . Or they’re like ‘meh’ and in those cases I drop it. I don’t push it through.”

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Trusting someone’s judgment does not mean that everything is being done the way you would do it. Different people will make different decisions. The question, as Rojas points out, is: Did their alternate approach make a material difference? As long as the desired outcome is achieved, controlling how it is achieved shouldn’t be that important to you.

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I was grateful for the positive response from the group, but I was eager (and somewhat anxious) for constructive feedback. I wanted to know what went wrong. Then I remembered that the workshop operated with a very nontraditional approach to sharing feedback. Specifically, constructive feedback was not allowed. Rather than bracing myself for the onslaught of critical comments, I would have to refine my story by listening to the group’s “appreciations.” Appreciations is a technique that O’Callahan and other storytellers use to improve students’ skills without any demoralizing consequences. It’s a unique form of feedback that helps creative professionals focus on developing their strengths. Here’s the concept behind appreciations: having just shared a story (or, in other contexts, a presentation or idea), you go around and ask people to comment on the elements they most appreciated.

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And I noticed that a natural recalibration happens when you commend someone’s strengths: their weaknesses are lessened as their strengths are emphasized. As my storytelling compatriots recounted their stories a second and third time, the points of weakness withered away naturally as the most beautiful parts became stronger.

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Of course, the contrarian’s view to this approach is that more direct feedback and criticism might help one cut to the chase. O’Callahan would argue that appreciation-based feedback helps us access a deeper creativity: People need to relax to be able to discover. Our unconscious won’t come forward and help us see things when we are too logical and focused on criticism. Sometimes someone will say, “I just want to know how to improve, not what is good.” People think that pointing out faults is the only way to improve. Appreciations are not about being polite. They are about pointing out what is alive. The recipient must take it in, incorporate it.

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Humankind is critical by nature. It is easier to hear an off note in a symphony than to identify the perfectly played note that makes all the difference. As O’Callahan explains, “Everyone thinks they can tell you what is good. But, no, it takes years to be able to say, ‘That phrase is fresh, that was a lovely image, sheets on the bed like snow-covered mountains, lovely.’ It is hard to get people to pay attention to that skill.”

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At one design firm I visited, a piece of work is placed on the table in a conference room, and everyone is asked to share three things they like about it. The artist takes away the feedback—all positive—and makes another version for the team to review. Almost always, the piece is dramatically improved. And the concerns that some members of the team had—but didn’t share—are often minimized naturally.

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Hot spots are easy to identify if you ask the right people and look in the right places. Don’t look for who gets the most credit or who is the most well-known. Instead, ask people where they go to get help. Seek out the people in your company or industry who are known for their reliability and uncanny ability to always know (or find) the answer. And then, when you identify the hot spots, listen to them and empower them. Give them more influence and responsibility. As you try to lead change through your creative endeavors, you should depend less on formal power plays and top-down transformations. Instead, you should seek out and engage the hot spots to ensure a lasting impact.

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A common occurrence in any organization is what I have come to call “momentary injustice.” One of the most extraordinary leaders I worked with while at Goldman Sachs was then vice chairman Rob Kaplan. “Justice prevails over time in any good organization,” he would say. “But justice does not prevail at any given point in time.” A good leader, Kaplan believed, was able to overlook missed credit or an unfair project assignment by having faith in the course of an organization’s growth.

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The best practice here is to develop a tolerance for momentary injustice and periods of ambiguity. Stay strong and stay calm as a situation settles itself over time and the clouds around any period of change start to dissipate.

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As British author A. A. Milne once said, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience—well, that comes from poor judgment.”

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Aspire to better practices, not the best. Rather than default to the way things have already been done, recognize that anything can be done better. While it is certainly worthy to find and follow time-tested methods as we pursue projects, it is dangerous to passively accept advice. All conventional wisdom and “best practices” should be taken with a grain of salt and built upon as we aspire to “better practices.” (This applies just as much to the advice in this book!)

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“When our [start-up team] first came together,” Weinreich recalled, “I told them that their biggest risk was joining the team—and that the rest of the experience would just be filling the holes in the boat. If we sat still, the boat would sink. The faster we moved, the more slowly the water would creep in, and we’d simply plug all of the holes over time.”

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In Anne Lamott’s international best seller Bird by Bird, about the art of writing, she cites a quote by the award-winning American author E. L. Doctorow on what it is like to write a novel. “It’s like driving a car at night,” Doctorow proclaims. “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

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