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Scott Berkun


Converting Ambition Into Action

The simple plan for people who want to solve big problems

Published: Tuesday, September 13, 2016 - 13:52

If you want to make progress happen, or be someone who brings good ideas into the world, the following is for you. It’s the simplest, easiest, most straightforward way to convert your ambition into action. When I’m asked to give

The simple plan

1. Pick a project and start doing something. It almost doesn’t matter what it is. You will need many experiences in trying to develop ideas into things before you’ll be good at it, especially if you are working with other people. Don’t wait around. Go make a website. Write a draft. Draw a sketch. Make a prototype. Have a small ambition you can manifest quickly so the stakes are low and the pace is fast. Until you start working on something, you won’t truly start learning. The temptation is to have a grand-sounding universal plan, but don’t give in to it. That can come later. Think of these early attempts as scouting for ideas. Before you can build a city, you must thoughtfully scout and map the landscape. Having a thing, even a napkin drawing, to look at improves the quality of conversations about the possible ideas. If you can’t find a way to start a project at work, do it on weekends—history is full of creative heroes who never had approval from anyone to do something. There is always a way to start; just pick something small enough that you can do it yourself in an afternoon, or with a friend, and get to work.

2. Forget the word “innovation” and focus on solving a problem. Most products out in the world are not very good. You rarely need a breakthrough to improve things, to beat the competition, or to help people suffering from a problem. If you carefully study the problem you’re trying to solve, you will discover many ways to make it better. That’s the best place to start. If you solve a problem for customers that makes them happy and earns you money, do you really think they will care if it’s “innovative” or a “breakthrough?” They just want their problems solved. If you cured cancer conventionally, would the patients refuse, saying “but it’s not innovative?” Of course not. Often a combination of many conventional solutions (the combination obscuring the age of some of the ideas) are considered as an innovation afterward by people ignorant of the history of those ideas. So don’t worry. Sometimes small ideas, applied well, matter more than big ideas. Try to use workmanlike language: “problem,” “prototype,” “experiment,” “customer,” “design,” and “solution” are better phrases than jargon such as “breakthrough,” “radical,” “game-changing,” and “innovative.” This keeps you low to the ground, and prevents your ego from distracting you away from simply making good things.

3. If you work with others, you need leadership and trust. If people don’t trust each other, there’s no point worrying about creativity, which management method you’re using, or how much budget you’re going to spend. It’s the leader’s job to create an environment of trust so ideas move freely and can grow. Developing new ideas is scary and demands vulnerability, and if people don’t trust each other, their talents will never be revealed. It’s also the leader’s role to use their superior power to take risks, and protect the team from the dangers of those risks. This sounds obvious, but look around. It’s rare. Many people do not trust their teams, or work for leaders who are willing to stake their reputations on the risks of a new idea. It’s uncommon to find someone in power who is willing to take the blame for problems, but also willing to give credit to subordinates as rewards for their efforts. If you’re a leader, the burden is on you. If you’re not, and you don’t work for someone who creates trust and is willing to take risks, good work will not happen where you are. Either move, find the courage to take a bet and force the issue, or accept the status quo.

4. If you work with others, and things are not going well, make the team smaller. There is a reason great things often happen in small organizations. With fewer people, there are fewer cooks and fewer egos. In many large organizations, there are too many people involved for anything interesting to happen. The first advice I give teams when things are not going well is to make the team smaller. If you’re the boss, and the politics are too complex, volunteer yourself to leave. Do whatever is necessary to reduce the number of people involved in developing ideas and making decisions. The dynamic of getting three people to agree to take a risk together is much simpler than getting 30 people to do the same. Three people can achieve an intellectual intimacy faster, and be fully invested and passionate about a decision in ways that 30 people can’t. Another solution is to pick one creative leader and give her more power. A film director is the singular creative leader on a movie. Yet most corporate or academic projects divide leadership across committees, diffusing authority, which always makes decisions more conservative. That’s the opposite of what you want.

5. Be happy about interesting “mistakes.” If you are doing something new, it cannot go well on the first, second, or possibly 50th time. This is OK. Your mindset has to be, “This did not go how I expected, but I expected that! What can I learn so the next attempt improves (or teaches more interesting lessons)?” The more interesting the lesson, the better. It’s the mind of an experimenter (see Chapter 3 of The Myths of Innovation) that you want to cultivate, asking questions about everything you make, and using the answers to those questions to fuel the next attempt, and the next. Many people quit on their second or third try at something, for reasons that have nothing to do with the history of innovation. Even brilliant minds rarely succeed within such a small number of tries. Perseverance, as simple a concept as it is, is rare. The more ambitious the problem you’re trying to solve, the more experiments and attempts you will need to get it right.

It’s easy to discount these basic notions, as they seem so simple, but that’s the trap. Those who don’t overlook these have the highest odds of producing good work, in a healthy culture, with results the team and the customers are proud of. The challenge is commitment because it’s natural to dream of an easier way and hope for a trick or formula or magical method to avoid the work and the risks. You will find many consultants and experts who promise you things that do not exist based on stories unsupported by history. But I hope that this simple plan will help anchor your confidence, defend you against myths, and stay with you.

This is an excerpt from Chapter 12, of Scott Berkun’s bestseller, The Myths of Innovation (O'Reilly Media, 2010).


About The Author

Scott Berkun’s picture

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a bestselling author of five books and a speaker known for his work on creativity, management, and philosophy. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, The Guardian, Wired magazine, USA Today, Fast Company, and other media. His latest book, The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com & The Future of Work (Jossey-Bass, 2013) was named an Amazon.com best book of the year.