The difficult thing about writing an article on the topic of innovation is that, well, you want it to be innovative. People are always looking for that one tip or trick that will turn them into the next great disruptor, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. So, as someone writing about innovation, I sat and thought, “what could I possibly add to this topic that hasn’t already been said by someone else?” Well, the answer that I came to is – nothing.

After several days thinking about various topics, I came to the realization that I just needed to start something and grind away at it until it, hopefully, became interesting. And that’s when it became kind of obvious, and I figured out what to write.

At Simantel we have a saying that we believe inspired ideas can change everything. And that’s true, to a point, insofar as great ideas (and sometimes even mediocre ideas) well-executed can yield great results. But the best ideas, even the truly inspired ones, will never develop without action. And with that, I just started writing.

As more notes began to form, I thought about what I’ve read on the topic of creativity and innovation over the last year or so. Some of the best things I’ve read all argued a similar basic premise: Innovative and creative ideas don’t just come to you (usually); you have to invest the time to develop them.

The Frustrations and Challenges

If you’re hoping you can wait out a deadline long enough to be visited by the magical idea fairy, you’ll probably be disappointed. And if you work in an environment where you’re expected to constantly come up with new ideas, this might be a reoccurring point of frustration.

But, you’re not alone in struggling to pull fresh ideas from the ether. Most innovators and creatives struggle with the same thing. Take for instance Steven Pressfield, the historical fiction author that wrote “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” later turned into a movie of the same name, and “Gates of Fire,” which inspired the action film “300.” One of Pressfield’s works specifically addresses this creative point, and it’s called “The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle.”

In “The War of Art,” Pressfield argues that what separates people who merely have ideas from the truly great innovators and creatives is their ability to forge an idea process (sometimes even a mediocre one) and refine it, build on it and polish it continuously until it can be recognized by others as a truly great work. He thinks that often our own self doubt about the quality of our idea(s) and the frustration that comes along with that stops us from realizing success.

What to Do About It

For professional ideas-people like artists, writers, entrepreneurs, technologists, etc. who need to constantly ideate, the only way to be successful is to form a process to make it easier to just start.

Now, when you use the words “process” and “innovation” or “creativity” together, there are those who will wince. But the intent behind the process isn’t to guarantee consistency, like on a production line where all the products end up the same. It’s really about creating a consistent environment around you that allows you to limit distractions, clear your mind and measure your success over a given period of time. Generating truly innovative ideas is difficult enough on its own, but start adding in disruptions from instant messages, not having the pen or marker you prefer to write with or dealing with other interruptions can make it downright impossible.

Like Pressfield, Scott Belsky also believes that the notion of relying on divine inspiration can be a fool’s errand, especially for entrepreneurs. You may recognize Belsky as the EVP and Chief Product Officer for Adobe. Prior to that, he was the founder of Behance, which started as an online community for artists and designers to share their portfolios (before it was acquired and added to the Adobe Creative Cloud platform).

For entrepreneurs, Belsky calls the space between ideation and business success the “messy middle.” As a matter of fact, he even named a book on the topic. Often, we assume that for many successful entrepreneurs, the path to success was predestined almost by a matter of fate. But in his book, Belsky uses his own experience as a case study to show that that’s almost never true. And more often than not, the path to success as a business innovator is the hold-on-tight-and-try-to-make-the-best-decisions-you-can-along-the-way-while-constantly-second-guessing-yourself-as-your-decisions-rarely-turn-into-the-desired-outcomes kind of path.

Get Past the Messy Middle

In either case, whether you’re the solo creative putting ideas to paper or the innovative leader of a team forging a new direction or industry, the pain and frustrations are the same. Innovation and creativity can be a painful journey of self-doubt with the possibility of failure just around every corner, until it isn’t. But no one gets past that messy middle without just doing the work.

So, let’s recap some tips:

  • Invest time – don’t wait for a looming deadline hoping that the idea fairy will visit you.
  • Put a “process” in place – not like a production line, but a guide. Then refine it, build on it and polish it.
  • Create a productive environment – limit distractions and clear your mind.
  • Just get started – don’t let your self doubt and frustrations stop you.

Whether you have the most inspired idea or the most bland, the only way to reach success is to take that first step, and then another, and another until eventually you’re done. But you’ll never overcome frustration, self-doubt and fear of failure until you start. And that’s what separates anyone with an idea from a true innovator. (Cue fade out with the Rolling Stones “Start Me Up”).