I’m always talking about the value of having big, bold ideas, and yet just as critical is knowing how to get a big, bold idea off the ground. That can be tricky.
At this stage of the game, I’m a pretty good idea launcher, but it’s definitely been an acquired skill. In my twenties and thirties, I often procrastinated, stewed, second-guessed myself or overly polished a concept, sometimes so much so that I totally missed the moment of opportunity.
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When I was a young writer at Glamour magazine, for instance, I decided on my own to research why there were wide swings in how readers rated key sections of the magazines from one issue to the next, a fact that mystified the top editors. I found a surprising explanation and began to write up a report on it. In hindsight I know this report would have scored major points for me, but for months I kept reworking it. I ended up landing a new job at another magazine before I had a chance to hand the darn thing in. (My one consolation: The insight I gained has served me for the rest of my career.)
But in time, thank God, I got better, in part from interviewing a few time-management experts but also from watching major idea launchers in action. Here are some of the strategies I’d recommend.
Play Shark Tank With Your Concept. You’ve seen the show, right? Would-be millionaires pitch their ideas to a team of experts who have the ability to fund them. Ask yourself what reception your idea would receive from a panel of experts? What grade would someone award it?
Just because your boss green-lit your concept doesn’t mean it’s really good. Ultimately you don’t want to try to run with an idea that lacks legs. It will be tough to keep summoning your energy, and in the end you won’t win much. Ask yourself if your concept really has the potential to add value (as in money or prestige) to your company (whether it’s your own or the place where you’re working.) Does it help solve a real, specific need? If not, go back to the drawing board. Playing Shark Tank could also help you see a flaw you can fix before you go forward.
Get Feedback. An interesting study from the 1980s showed that star performers in a company tended to have diverse social networks and regularly gathered feedback from them. In other words, hearing from a range of people has value and prevents you from falling victim to groupthink.
Just be wary of people who really don’t know what they’re talking about. Soon after I started as the editor-in-chief of Redbook, I decided I wanted to put Whitney Houston on the cover. The guy running circulation at the time told me it was a terrible idea, and that other than Oprah, black women couldn’t sell magazines. But he was a fifty-something white male who’d not seen her recent movie, The Bodyguard. I’d not only watched the flick five times, but I’d checked out the box-office numbers—awesome. So I went ahead and the sales were huge.
"When I decided I wanted to write fiction while I had a full-time job, I managed to pull it off by scheduling only 15 minutes of writing time a day."
In other words, when you ask your architect boyfriend to weigh in on your idea for a new fashion app, take what he says with a big grain of salt.
Make a Launch Plan. Once you have a great idea, you want to put it in action now, but, first, you must have an execution strategy. Plot out the steps that need to be taken and keep a to-do list. If there’s a deadline involved, work backward from there to figure out key target dates for each step.
Slice the Salami. Sometimes great ideas fail in the early execution phase because it all seems too freaking overwhelming. A time-management expert I interviewed once compared tackling a big project to eating a whole salami—not very appetizing. His recommendation was to slice everything down into more appetizing parts and focus on those parts, one at a time. When I decided I wanted to write fiction while I had a full-time job, I managed to pull it off by scheduling only 15 minutes of writing time a day. It was so easy to do, I never ended up avoiding the task. And once I was in the zone, I often stayed there far longer than the allotted time.
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Skip Steps 1 and 2. This is another great trick for not getting bogged down in the morass of execution. Ask yourself if you can forego some of the preliminaries. In one of my editor-in-chief jobs, I had the idea to do a book line with a major publisher, and I knew it could mean millions of dollars for us. I decided to put together a Powerpoint to make the pitch. Days went by and I never seemed to find the time. So one day I picked up the phone, asked to speak to the right person at the publishing house, and ran my idea by her on the phone. The answer was yes.
Consider a Test Run. I’ve got three words for you: The Affordable Care Act website. Did they ever test that thing? A test run will help you discover whether the idea will stick and whether there are any kinks.
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Let It Go. A common mistake people make is holding onto an idea too long, trying to get it just right. Here’s a great point made to me once by Paperless Post cofounder Alexa Hirschfeld: “Even if your product isn’t as perfect as you’d like, perfection in your hands isn’t relevant. You need to know what your consumer thinks. When you put it out there, you can begin to collect data to make it more perfect.”
Be Sure You’ve Pre-boarded Your Allies. It’s sad to say, but sometimes great ideas are undermined by coworkers who are jealous or competitive. That can happen even if you’re in a position of power. So without giving your idea away to anyone who might steal it, try to enlist key players whose support can make all the difference.
Kate White’s most recent career book, "I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This: Success Secrets Every Gutsy Girl Should Know” is just out in paperback. Visit her website, katewhite.com, to learn more about it, as well as the thrillers and mysteries she writes.