Why some good ideas spread slowly

Why some good ideas spread slowly

The main challenge for any innovator is idea adoption. So, it’s important to understand both how ideas spread and what motivates people to adopt those ideas. So, how does an innovation spread?

For the first clue, last week I published a post where I referenced Alex Pentland’s work on how ideas spread. He rightfully says that the key ingredients necessary to accelerate innovation in any environment are engagement and diversity.

If you are seriously considering building a culture of innovation, I encourage you to read about Alex Pentland’s research on how ideas spread in organizational and urban environments; it’s huge. Tim Kastelle has a great perspective on what it means for organizational design going forward.

Great! But, if you intentionally design your organization to always be innovating does that mean that all ideas will spread fast no matter where they start? Actually, as Scott Berkun insightfully says “the default state of an idea is non-adoption. Even in cultures where innovation is expected.

That means everything happens slowly…

To understand why, I direct your attention to a fascinating article Atul Gawande wrote last year in the New Yorker about why some good ideas spread slowly:

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

It comes down to interacting with people. And, even if you are in a creative industry like Pixar; you still have to create mechanisms to help you fight human nature and sustain your culture of innovation.

Finally, and this is a big one, not all ideas will catch on immediately. That’s another challenge about innovation: timing.

Bottom line: For innovators, this is not a new insight. We instinctively know that idea adoption is a social process, and I think most of us are an inpatient bunch when it comes to getting things done; I know I am. Change happens slowly, no matter if you are in Silicon Valley or any other hot spot where high levels of engagement and diversity exist. Humans are complicated, no matter how much data we accumulate, and need constant proding. Launching an idea into the market is one thing, getting people to adopt and replace their existing solution with it is another ball game. And sometimes we have to be aggressive and push our ideas on people to get them to adopt it.

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