How The Most Successful People Keep Track Of Their Best Ideas

Five leaders share how they record, organize, and manage their ideas.

How The Most Successful People Keep Track Of Their Best Ideas
[Photo: Flickr user Tony Webster]

Being an ideas machine is one thing; giving your ideas the chance to be rediscovered and flourish is another.


Because let’s face it: Ideas are merely forgotten thoughts if they’re not recorded, organized, managed, and implemented. How many times have you heard of a new business and thought to yourself, “I totally came up with that idea years ago”? That’s proof that great ideas mean nothing if you don’t manage them for later expansion and implementation.

While dreamers often have the best ideas, it’s the doers who are getting things done. Below, five leaders share how they record, organize, and manage their ideas.

Stay Objective And Get Feedback

Anne Raimondi, senior vice president of operations at Zendesk

To manage her ideas, Raimondi has a three-step process:

1. Stay objective. If you’re an ideas machine, it can be difficult to to decide which ones are worth filtering, editing, and revising, and which ones you need to let go of (at least for now). For Raimondi, continuously asking, “What problem am I trying to solve?” is crucial so that she doesn’t “fall in love with one idea and miss coming up with a better one.”

2. Ask for feedback. After coming up with a sketch of an idea, getting others to brainstorm with you is a great way to expand and build your nugget from something okay to something great.


Recently, Raimondi asked two colleagues to help her brainstorm for an upcoming event after she came up with a rough idea. “Including them in the conversation transformed it into something I could never have come up with on my own,” she says. “Collaborating almost always makes an idea better.”

3. Be patient and persevere. Sometimes, the best things take time to become a reality. When you know you have a big idea worth holding on to, don’t forget to take the time to revisit it every once in awhile. Raimondi’s big idea came nearly a decade ago:

Nine years ago, on a cross-country plane ride, while working together at a crazy startup, one of my best friends and I decided that someday, we wanted to build something together. We didn’t know what or when. We just knew it was a goal for us. Almost a decade later, we’re now forming a partnership to invest in talented entrepreneurs we’ve met and worked with over the last nine years. If not for the different journeys we’ve been on, and being patient, our idea wouldn’t be coming to fruition.

Always Have A Notebook Around

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic

For Adams, who is the creator of Dilbert and has a handful of companies under his belt he’s either started or invested in, coming up with new, great ideas is crucial. He’s tried note apps, but finds them too slow. Instead, he has a system that enables him to record for revisiting later:

“I have a seven-second rule in my home,” he says. “I have to be able to reach a working pen and notepad or I risk being distracted and forgetting.”

He adds: “Smartphones and computers take longer than seven seconds and add distraction. I transfer them to a computer later.”


Additionally, Adams emails himself ideas using the same subject line for all of them.

“That makes it easy to search later,” says Adams when he’s ready to transfer his ideas to the computer for organizing and managing.

But Adams isn’t done managing his ideas: He has a whiteboard in his “man cave” to write ideas on, he starts draft blog posts and saves them in Tumblr, and for his movie script, he’s turned a room into a visual timeline of the film with notecards for scene ideas.

Revisit Ideas Every Month

Robi Ganguly, cofounder and CEO of Apptentive

To make sure no great idea is forgotten, Ganguly always has a notebook around in case an idea sparks. Then, every month, he flips through his ideas notebook to “pull out similar ideas and see if they coalesce around something.”

“If [the ideas are] particularly direction-oriented, I make them more concrete ideas with plans and questions that I can circulate with other people,” says Ganguly.


He also says he’s learned to “let ideas float and disappear.”

“Once I stopped worrying about every idea getting turned into actions and let myself just get ideas down, it became ‘less expensive’ to have ideas, because I didn’t have to worry about making everything into a plan of action and implementation.”

Recruit Other Brains To Expand Your Idea

Claire Hough, vice president of engineering at Udemy

“My main strategy is to document my ideas, then empower people on my team who are motivated by the ideas to breathe life into them and see them through,” says Hough.

“I love disseminating the small ideas that may have more immediate impact to people on my team who can take the ideas to the next step. It is best when they can adopt the idea as their own and run with it.”

For bigger ideas, Hough also recruits people to execute them, but in a more organized way, like the form of a hackathon project or creating a prototype or demo.


Test Ideas And Fail Quickly

Amy Errett, CEO of Madison Reed

For Errett, ideas are the engine for any startup. In the beginning, you come up with ideas, you throw a bunch up, and you run with them. Once you decide that an idea is worth pursuing, “testing your ideas and failing quickly are a crucial part of the process,” says Errett. Use data during your testing process and if something clicks, scale quickly.


About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.