Why Do Some Innovations Spread Slowly?

I’m a fan of Atul Gawande’s books  (here’s my review of Checklist Manifesto). His essay in the New Yorker, Slow Ideas, suggests most good ideas spread quickly.

I take the opposite position. The default state of a new idea is non-adoption. Most new ideas go nowhere. Most ideas travel slowly, if at all, and the examples of technological change we often site area tiny minority of the ones that were attempted: it’s selection bias. Consider how many posts on social media get ignored (it’s 71% of tweets). Are these all new ideas? No, but the sheer volume of information and ideas we are exposed to, and the limited channels of attention our brains can handle, should make clear most ideas in the world we never even hear about. We can’t adopt an idea we’ve never even heard.

And even if you knew about every good idea, there is a limit to how much change you can adopt. How many new diets can you try at one time? Modes of transportation? Techniques for getting your job done? Change, even to a clearly good idea, has what should be obvious costs that slow, or make improbable, the adoption of anything new.

Any good study of psychology and history shows that we are, by nature, conservative creatures when it comes to change. Most people, most of the time, defend the status quo, since they’re alive! It’s a valuable survival trait. Unless survival is at stake most of us, most of the time, resist change. Adoption of most knowledge, including social and philosophical beliefs, often shift only when the young age into being the dominate generation (or the old die) and the new ideas they bring with them enter the center of culture.

But of most importance to this post is Gawande’s misuse, or glancing over, of one of the pioneers in understanding how ideas spread: Everett Rogers. Gawande refers to his theories in an offhand way, overlooking how Rogers answered many of the questions Gawande is asking. Roger’s explained why most ideas don’t spread, rather than the opposite. Here’s all the Gawande has to say about 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.”

But he never mentions the 5 major factors Rogers identified (in his book Diffusion of Innovation)  for why some ideas gain traction and most do not:

  1. Relative Advantage: this is perceived advantage. Marketing usually tries to tell you this explicitly (“save time”, “save money”, “double your income”)
  2. 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”)
  3. Complexity: How much learning is required to apply the innovation? (“Easy to learn”, “5 of 6 people like you”)
  4. Trial-ability: Is it easy to try out? Most clothing stores let you try things on, and many products have free trial offers.
  5. 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:

[Mild edits: 10/4/2019]

5 Responses to “Why Do Some Innovations Spread Slowly?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    If there’s anytime a proven innovation should be adopted it’s wartime. But no. No indeed. As a youth I read where allied young officers in North Africa seethed. They knew how Rommel was accomplishing his “impossible” triumphs, but they couldn’t tell their senior officers. (Rommel saw the desert as a sea, not a landscape) The winning general at El Alamein, Montgomery, used numerical superiority, not Rommel tactics.

    History tells us that Napoleon expressed alarm when one of his young generals published a work of battle craft that gave up Napoleon’s secrets. Then in the next breath he relaxed, saying none of the allied generals would read it. –Oh, isn’t human nature timeless!

  2. Tanner Christensen

    You touch here a bit on the number one reason innovations are so slow to emerge on a broader—even global—scale, but fail to mention that point explicitly. The point is: risk.

    Research has founded that the reason so many innovations don’t spread is because those who need them most cannot afford to risk trying them. It’s the reason Silicon Valley exists in a bubble as it does: those who live in the area can afford to gamble on innovations related to everything from transportation and medical care all the way to grocery delivery and wireless capabilities.

    Ideas travel slowly primarily as a result of our ability to take a risk with them. The riskier (or more “costly”) the idea, the less likely it will be to spread quickly, regardless as to whether it’s a worthwhile innovation or not.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Well said. Rogers would put that under his #4, Trialability.

      It’s also interesting to look at what kinds of innovation come from communities that didn’t have the financial wealth to experiment with expensive instruments – but did have creativity, talent and time. Hip Hop music is an entire genre, one of the most popular in America today, based on not having access to instruments or the wealth to get lessons using them (tied with the affordability of drum machines).

  3. kabute j

    innovations take long because people are uncertain about their cosequencies. perçeived advantages, compatibility with need, ease of use, trialabiity and observability of the results speed up the rate of adoption.



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