I’m a fan of Atul Gawande (here’s my review of Checklist Manifesto) and I’ve read all his books. His recent essay in the New Yorker, Slow Ideas, is about why some good ideas spread slowly. It’s about his experience with ideas in medicine, and struggles he’s observed with gaining adoption. Like Gladwell he winds a well told narrative around a simple concept, and depending on your interests you either find this mesmerizing or much ado about little, but either way it’s an enjoyable read.
I take the opposite position to his central question of why some ideas move slowly. The default state of an idea is non-adoption. Most ideas travel slowly, if at all, and technological change is an overstated exception. We are conservative creatures and resist change. Adoption of most knowledge, including social and philosophical beliefs, often shift only when the young become old and the new ideas they bring with them enter the center of culture.
But of most importance to this post is midway through Gawande’s article he makes a hat tip to Everett Rogers:
“…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.”
It’s an all too brief mention if you work with ideas. If you want to understand the mechanics of how innovations spread, an overview of Rogers is what you need.
Rogers work as an anthropologist is the basis for modern marketing. Dozens of business books have borrowed or stolen from his classic book Diffusion of Innovation. In a tight nutshell, he pointed out 5 factors that explains the adoption of innovation, or more precisely, the factors that if absent prevent an idea from being adopted:
- Relative Advantage: this is perceived advantage. Marketing usually tries to tell you this explicitly (“save time”, “save money”, “double your income”)
- Compatibility: How much effort is required? If the perceived cost of change is higher than the perceived relative advantage, most people won’t even try. Marketing typically attacks this too (“Free money back guarantee”, “Even a child could do it”)
- Complexity: How much learning is required to apply the innovation? (“Easy to learn”, “5 of 6 people like you”)
- Trial-ability: Is it easy to try out? Most clothing stores let you try things on, and many products have free trial offers.
- Observability: How visible are the results of the innovation? Fashion fads are highly visible which helps them spread. Tech gadgets benefit from this too.
To Gawande’s central point, you need both leaders and salespeople to actively participate in pushing for adoption. Without the support of influencers in a culture, and a sustained effort to convince people of the 5 factors, ideas tend not to be adopted no matter how beneficial they are.
Rodger’s also coined the term Early Adopter, as part of his breakdown for the sub-groups that form around new ideas.
If you want more depth on Innovation adoption I have three recommendations:
- The Diffusion of Innovation wikipedia page is excellent
- Roger’s classic book, The Diffusion of Innovation, is more about anthropology than business. But if you like Gawande’s story, the book has many similar ones (including a story about convincing tribes to adopt the use of boiling water. Hey, everything was once an innovation).
- You can download Chapter 4 of The Myths of Innovation for free. It explains why we resist new ideas and what you can do about it.