Scott Belsky on Turning Ideas Into Action

It's not ideas that the foundation of innovation, says entrepreneur Scott Belsky. It's knowing how to execute them.

Scott HeadshotScott Belsky, an entrepreneur and Main Stage Speaker at PCMA Convening Leaders 2017, thinks we spend too much time looking for the next great idea and too little time managing the ones we’ve already got. “It’s not the idea,” Belsky recently told Convene. “It’s making ideas happen.”

That insight powered not only the company Belsky co-founded in 2006 —Behance, a technology platform that helped creative professionals organize and manage their work lives — but also 99U, a think tank and conference dedicated to helping creative professionals improve productivity. It’s also the jumping-off point for Making Ideas Happen: Overcoming the Obstacles Between Vision and Reality, his best-selling 2010 book, which grew out of research that he began while he was earning an MBA at Harvard Business School, when he was asking questions like “Do people succeed because their ideas are any better than the rest of us? Or was it other forces at play that helped them push their ideas to fruition?” he said. “I learned, certainly, that it was the latter.”

After Adobe acquired Behance in 2012, Belsky worked there for four years as vice president of products. He’s now a venture capitalist, author, and speaker based in New York City and San Francisco.

What will you be talking about at Convening Leaders?

I’ll talk about how teams can, specifically in three areas, be more productive and make ideas happen. One area is how you can increase the level of organization in your life around the ideas you’ve already got — whether it’s how you manage your day to day, or schedule when you meet and when you don’t meet, and how you optimize the way that you work.

Again, it’s not about the ideas, it’s about how organized you are around them. I hope to leave people with the belief that they need to invest in the optimization of how they work. Oftentimes we’re just so focused on our work that we don’t really take time to improve the way we work. But some of the most productive creative people in the world spend energy on optimizing their own work itself.

The second area is what I like to call community forces. This is the role that community plays in helping you gain traction around ideas. There are some counterintuitive things, like the role that competitors play. There’s also the role that you play making sure your community knows what you’re capable of. There’s a stigma around self-marketing — no one likes to go proactively and tell everyone what they’ve done. But at the same time, it’s a tragedy of talent when no one knows what you’re capable of.

And the third area is around leadership. What are the things that some of the greatest productive teams in the world do in terms of their leaders that we can learn from? I hope that we can also have an ode to the leader, to how important leadership is, and somewhat counterintuitive things that leaders do to keep the team together and to make extraordinary ideas happen.

You now work as a venture capitalist. Is it possible or desirable for everyone to have a startup mindset?

I think a startup mindset or having an idea and then executing it are one and the same. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, or work within a company or within a government organization or in a movement, or if you are on your own — I think there are many of the same forces that determine your failure or your success. I think the path toward execution is very similar.

Are you writing another book?

I’m working on another book now, one that is really thinking about the journey that people take from start to finish. When you start something or when you finish something, that’s typically when everyone in the world celebrates or empathizes with what you’re going through. But the middle of the journey — the endurance and the optimization of the journey — is a very lonely place. I’m trying to better understand the middle of people’s journeys.

As a speaker and former organizer of the 99U conference, are there any particular meetings or formats that you think are evolving in a way that you think meetings should?

I think that some of the greatest meeting formats use experience design as a very important part of the planning: Are you stimulating a lot of the exchange between people in the seams of the experience? It’s not just about the formal event — it’s about the informal event. Are people meeting new people during the breaks, or are they just connecting with old people that they already knew?

And I really like the open-space concept, the format where people can bring up topics of interest and then assemble an agenda around them. I like the idea of community-curated agenda items, rather than just a few people determining what everyone should be talking about.

You recently wrote a list of five technology forecasts for the future. How do you think work and meetings are changing?

Well, I think that the more our life is online, the more important it is to get offline. And so I think meetings are a big part of that. And also a meeting is when you gather people together; it’s a way of setting the tone for the type of organization you are. And it’s a way of making an impact in a way you can only do physically, versus virtually. So meetings aren’t going anywhere. That’s the good news.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.