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The DNA Of Idea Execution: How Creatives Are Working Today

What makes great ideas happen? Or not happen? We surveyed the creative community to track trends in productivity, priorities, and challenges.

What are the core ingredients of great idea executions? How are our workspaces impacting our creative output? And why do we waste almost 40% of our productivity each day? To answer these questions and more, we polled the creative community, crunched the data, and transformed it into a beautiful, poster-size infographic – otherwise known as the 99U’s annual Idea Execution Audit.

Sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation, the Idea Execution Audit premiered at our annual 99U Conference in early May. The results present a fascinating window into our particular productivity struggles ichn the year 2012. That is, when we’re working in open-plan workspaces with Twitter chattering in the corner of our screens; have the choice of working on a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer at any given moment; and possess the drive (and the power) to launch our own businesses from anywhere in the world…

1. Other People’s Priorities Are Stealing Our Attention, and Draining Our Productivity


Everyone is struggling with how to balance others’ demands with being productive in the things that matter most. When we asked the creative community how much time they spend on “reactionary work” – aka responding to other people’s emails, calls, etc rather than tending to their own goals – over half said they spent more than 50% of the day on reactionary work.

It’s not surprising then that while creatives are working 9 hours a day on average, only 5.5 of those hours are truly productive. In short, we’re spending about 40% of our time on activities that are not moving the ball forward.


2. Face-to-Face Conversations Are Productive, Interruptions Are Not

So what are the time-sucks that are eating up 40% of our day? In last year’s Execution Audit, creatives said that email was their biggest distraction. I’m guessing that’s still true as this year’s survey reported that in-person communication is, by far, the most efficient way to get things done. 56% of creatives preferred a face-to-face conversation for productivity, while only 27% prefer email.


I’d also wager that the trend toward “open” offices is causing some problems. According to a recent study cited in the NY Times, more than 70% of workers now inhabit open-plan workspaces. Such offices are great at facilitating productive face-to-face conversations, but awful at preventing the interruptions that break our concentration.

Which might be why the majority of us (42%) are getting our best work done on our laptops, rather than when we’re sitting at our desktop (36%). It’s also worth noting that a full fifth of creatives said that they’re doing their best work on paper – a strong argument for the power of sketching out ideas.


3. Great Executions Require Iteration

We also learned – surprise! – that nobody is perfect. More than half of creatives said that they typically rework their ideas at least 5 times during execution, reaffirming our belief that iteration is essential to making great ideas happen. And that it’s more important to push out of our comfort zones than to achieve perfection.


Of course, iterating is hard, and so is dealing with the inevitable missteps that come when you’re exploring uncharted territory. Which is likely why the biggest challenge of idea execution is staying accountable and keeping motivated during the long haul.


4. We Are All Entrepreneurs Now

The good news is we’re taking control of our careers. A full 62% of creatives said that they would describe themselves as entrepreneurs, which means they’re taking the lead in organizing, managing, and driving their businesses. As LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman said recently, we have to “find a way to add value in a way no one else can. For entrepreneurs, it’s differentiate or die – that now goes for all of us.”


In keeping with the trend toward entrepreneurial thinking, creatives are looking to develop their tolerance for risk-taking. It’s a topic we’ve been obsessed with here at 99U of late, digging into why success always starts with failure, learning how to encourage “smart mistakes“, and understanding how to make big decisions without sweating it.


To check out the full results of our annual survey, download the audit below.

–> Download the 99U Idea Execution Audit infographic

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (14)
  • David_rayment

    Perhaps the reason why “polling” creatives was such a successful exercise in this article was because creatives were ever so willing to drop what they were doing to fill out a survey.Anyone else sense the irony? Distractions such as this article seem to perpetuate a creatives issues of procrstination. I know I just spent time reading it instead of working…*sigh*

  • mareelouise

    I like the point around iterations.
    I think they are so key to getting good work.
    But I work with alot of people who don’t understand why we can’t get the idea right “in the first place”.
    The joys.

  • neben

    Well it depends if being working as a creative means sitting on front of any device and trying to spill something out.

    Sure that works for most iterations (I would say for the first 4 ones) but,in my case, most of my innovative idea come when i’m doing everything else but working and my brain is iddle (I.e. commuting, taking a shower, etc.). To the point that I’m wondering if being on reactionary mode at work is that bad…

    Fact is you probably are working on an open space with people/mail/phone distracting you (and the the higher the post the harder it is). But can’t the time at the office be the time of the day where you are actually building the foundation for your brain to work when it goes into iddle mode.John Cleese actually gave a great lecture on that topic (see john Cleese – a lecture on creativity)Then the question is, as this article point out, do you value your work enough to let him occupy your brain when it is iddle at a time where our attention span is getting shorter and where we are more and more solicitated…

  • automatic_ab

    Ironic thing is I had to stop working to read this article…Oh! What?! Someone already said that? :/

  • William Seabrook

    It’s funny, whenever I’m out of the office for a day, my lead designer tends to work from home, and is much more productive – because he’s getting on with his work and not reacting to me and our clients!

    Cheers for the post.


  • michael powers

    “100% right, 100% of the time” – My boss. In an uninterrupted, face to face conversation.

  • Tea Silvestre, aka Word Chef

    I’m looking for the full audit data…not just the infographic. How many people actually answered the survey? Where did they come from?

  • JBC

    I think you’re overreacting the the language about reactionary work. Part o moving our own ball forward involves reacting to meet the needs of others who may also be working on the same project, are the actual client, etc. Otherwise we’d be a bunch of individual automatons only working in parallel process much like the individuals “minds” that form the Borg.

  • amgine

    Should it be “uncharted” territory?

  • Matt

    I was just thinking about how I experience my “a-ha moment” in the shower and while laying in bed. I thought the shower was weird, but now know I’m not alone… in thinking. I’m still the only one in the shower.

  • 99U

    It should! Fixed, thanks

  • Crossover

    I am left thoroughly encouraged after reading this especially because I am not alone, creatives this is how we are 🙂

  • Ideation Cumulus

    It may seem ironic, but don’t forget that reading stuffs (articles, books, magazines, etc.), watching tv, listening radio, surfing on the web, going to the grocery, doing a bike ride, etc. are all activities that in a certain way activate and feed our creative thinking…

    Ironic ? maybe. Necessary, it surely is 🙂

  • Diego Diaz

    This article made me think, analyze and even laugh! It’s pretty nice to know how you identify yourself within the creative community and it’s lifestyle. How some things can distracts us and how others can really motivate our concept and execution process. Love it!

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