One evening you’re at a party, talking to a person you just met, and they say something to the effect of “yeah, I have this great idea…” For the purpose of this discussion the details of the idea are not important. But if the ellipses are bugging you, let’s say that this person’s grand scheme is to teach cats to be lifeguards.
What’s remarkable about this, aside from how terrible an idea it would be to train hydrophobic house cats to rescue drowning people, is just how common this kind of conversation is. Everyone has a great idea. And everyone has an idea that never made it off the ground. Maybe it’s a half-finished novel sitting in a drawer, or the perfect business idea, or a half-sketched piece of art collecting dust on an easel. Ideas are everywhere. As much as it would be nice to feel special, creativity is common, even amongst the most boring people. What is rare is the ability to take an idea, and see it through. Getting past the planning stage, hell, even making it to the planning stage, takes a lot more work than just having an idea.
So what does it take to get through the most basic plan?
Step 1: Have a clear idea, and ask yourself why
Before going to get 100 cats from the local shelter, why not ask yourself “Are cats going to make good lifeguards?” Better yet, ask yourself why you want to create the feline version of Baywatch, and what you want to get out of it. Having a clear picture of what the concept actually is, and why you want to do it will not only help formulate the strategy, but it will also help you stick with it when the going gets tough. If you don’t have a clear reason for wanting to do something, the motivation to work on it every day, until it’s done, isn’t going to appear.
Step 2: Flesh out the strategy
Once you know why you want to pursue an idea, then work on the details. You don't need a fully formed business plan— a basic to-do list might be enough. One warning: Be sure to figure out how you’re going to pay for your project. This is often where most people will get discouraged. Instead of giving up now, include finding money as part of your to-do list, rather than using it as an excuse for not finishing.
Step 3: What’s in a name?
The next step seems trivial, but I believe it is crucial for building motivation. When you have a name for something, you have a shorthand to reference it. You can refer to it when you’re telling potential stakeholders, you can register a domain, and you build an image of the idea in your own head. No, the first name you come up with doesn’t need to be the final name, but the sooner you are enthused by what you’re calling it, the faster you will be able to share that enthusiasm with everyone else. Which is important for step 4.
Step 4: Write all this down and tell someone else
Once you have a name, a concrete concept, and a to-do list, it’s time to write everything down into a proposal. It really doesn’t need to be fancy. The bare minimum, however, should be something that you’re willing to show someone else. Even if you’re uncomfortable with telling others about your idea because of how good it is, find a few trusted friends to read your proposal.. Be polite when listening to their thoughts, remember they’re doing you a favour, but also remember that not everyone will rejoice the second you tell them about your idea. If one or two people say your plan is not going to work, don’t be discouraged. Take the suggestions you can use, and discard the rest. Just try to pay attention if everyone tells you it’s a bad idea. It doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, it might just mean something needs to be changed.
Step 5: What’s next?
Alright, you have your plan and you’ve received some feedback. Now you need to make something happen. Identify the very first step to get your idea off the ground. Try not to focus on the larger picture at this stage. Seeing everything at once can be overwhelming, and make you want to quit. Pick one or two tasks, such as finding the money for your project, or identifying the people who can help you, and let the rest sit for awhile. Moving one foot in front of the other as you start will keep you focused.
I like these steps because they don’t take very long. Ideas are common, especially for creative people, and if you can quickly identify whether an idea is viable, or indeed if you really want to do it, early on, then you will save yourself a lot of grief down the road. This plan will also get you moving.
At the end of the day, having a great idea has never been enough. Only hard work can do that. That said, a good idea can go a long way. So, maybe skip the cat life-saving empire this time and focus on an idea that's meaningful to you.