Why The Best Idea Doesn’t Always Win

berkun-myths-210x315-200x300[This is an excerpt from the bestseller, The Myths of Innovation. You can read a summary of the entire book here]

Why people believe the best wins

This myth is best captured in the famous saying, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” Unfortunately, the quote is a misattribution to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a leading 19th-century intellectual. What he actually said was “If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs to sell, you will find a broad, hard beaten road to his house.” I’m not sure when you last sold pigs or grew corn, but Emerson had something other in mind than rallying would-be entrepreneurs. The phrase was meant to be poetic, not instructional, and he’d be disappointed at how many people have taken his words literally.

The phrase has been used as the entrepreneur’s motto, misguiding millions into entertaining the notion that a sufficiently good idea will sell itself. As nice as it would be for good ideas to take responsibility for themselves, perhaps using their goodness ID cards to cut ahead of stupid ideas in the popularity line, it’s not going to happen. Even the (false) proverbial mousetrap, as historian John H. Lienhard notes, has about 400 patents for new designs filed annually in the U.S., and we can be certain that no one is beating down their doors. More than 4000 mousetrap patents exist, yet only around 20 ever became profitable products.

These days, the best equivalent to the metaphoric mousetrap is “to build a better web site” or mobile app, proven by the 30,000 software patents and 1 million web sites created annually. Certainly not all of these efforts are motivated by wealth or wishful thinking, but many inventors still hope that the “If you build it, they will come” sentiment is alive and strong.

Lienhard, based on his study of innovations throughout history, challenges that faith:

Rarely if ever are the networks that surround an innovation in its earliest stages given the credit they are due…a better mouse- trap, like anything else, will succeed only when those who envision the idea convince others to join in their new venture—as investors, suppliers, employees, retailers, customers, and even competitors.

The goodness or newness of an idea is only part of the system that determines which ideas win or lose. When we bemoan our favorite restaurant going out of business (“but they make the best cannelloni!”) or why our favorite band can’t sell albums (“they have the best lyrics!”), we’re focusing on the small part of the picture that effects us personally, which is only one factor in the environment determining its fate. These environmental, or secondary, factors have as much influence as the quality of the idea, the talent, or the innovation itself.

The secondary factors of progress

The history of innovation reveals many ideas that dominate a field yet are derided by insiders. Any hi-tech device today follows the QWERTY keyboard model, a system not designed for efficiency or ergonomics. The Phillips screw is inferior to the lesser-known Robertson screw, a clever gem of industrial design. The M-16, the most widely produced rifle in the world, had serious jamming and ease-of-use problems. Fireplaces, staples in American cabins and homes, are one of the least efficient heating systems known to man. And HTML and JavaScript are far from the best software development languages, yet they’re perhaps the most successful in history. The list goes on, despite the best wishes of all of the smart, goodness-motivated people throughout time. Even today, right now, ideas of all kinds that experts criticize—including those in your own fields of expertise—are gaining adoption.

In Chapter 4 of The Myths of Innovation, the psychology of innovations’ diffusion was explored, listing how individuals make choices that impact innovation adoption. Now, it’s time for a broader analysis of influen tial factors. Looking at history, here are seven factors that play major roles:

  1. Culture. The Japanese invented firearms years before Europeans. But their culture saw the sword as a symbol of their values: craftsmanship, honor, and respect. Despite the advantages of using firearms, the innovation was ignored and seen as a disgraceful way to kill (a sentiment echoed by the Jedi in Star Wars films). The best technology is only one view of innovation—how the innovation fits in a culture’s values is often stronger. For example, imagine a device in the U.S. that gave you telepathy at work but required making lunch out of your neighbor’s dog or being naked in public, two taboos of American culture. Innovations do change societies, but they must first gain acceptance by aligning with existing values.
  2. Dominant design. The QWERTY keyboard came along for the ride with the first typewriter. When Christopher Sholes created this layout, he didn’t imagine millions of people using it—he just needed a design that wouldn’t jam his mechanical keys. But once typewriters succeeded, the first computer designers wanted to ease people’s transitions to their creations, so they copied the typewriter design. Many dominant designs achieve popularity on the back of another innovation. Better designs might follow, but to gain acceptance, they must improve on that dominant idea by a sufficient margin to jus- tify the costs of the switch (e.g., re-learning how to type). The more dominant the design, the more expensive those costs are (e.g., try innovating, or unifying, the shape of electric plugs around the world).
  3. Quality of the execution of the idea. Having a good idea doesn’t guarantee the way you manifest it in the world will be good. For a great idea for an automobile or a novel to be fully realized depends on the quality of hundreds of small decisions. Some good ideas, including ones labeled as “ahead of their time” lead to failed products. Some bad ideas, if executed in the right way, or marketed successfully for the climate of the times, can be successful in a marketplace, even if they are bad for consumers or the planet (e.g. unhealthy fast-food sold in styrofoam).
  4. Inheritance and tradition. The U.S. rejection of the metric system is tied to tradition: America already knew the English system, so why learn another? (See “Space, metrics, and Thomas Jefferson,” later in this chapter.) Some people confuse their comfort for a belief with it actually being good; therefore, inherited ideas (including the evils of bigotry, ignorance, and urban legends) are often protected by the very people they hurt in the name of honoring the beliefs of their parents and the past. This is a specific cultural factor.
  5. Politics: who benefits? There’s often little malice in political workings—people are simply acting in self-interest. In any situation, just ask: who benefits if we choose X, and who benefits if we choose Y? You can predict how people in power will respond to any new idea if you first calculate its impact on them. The interests of those in power influenced the adoption, or rejection, of every innovation in history. Hunger, war, and poverty are tough problems, but it’s in someone’s interest for those problems to continue. Any innovation aimed at solving those problems must consider politics for it to succeed.
  6. Economics. Innovation is expensive: will the costs of changing to the new thing be worth it? Everyone might agree that an innovation is better in the abstract, but the financing required might be impossible or the risks unreasonable. Dominant designs (see above) are expensive to replace. Often there is only time or money for innovating in one area; other innovations are rejected, not on their merits, but on their value to the priorities of the moment.
  7. Goodness is subjective. Get three people in a room and you’ll get five definitions of goodness (see Chapter 10). Fireplaces, mentioned earlier, are popular because of how they look more so than how they function. Consumer differences in values, tastes, and opinions are rarely explored until after an innovation has been proposed, or even built, leaving innovators with creations the public does not want. Smart innovators study their customers, mastering their needs early enough that those factors can be useful. The often-used Beta vs. VHS example fits: a key factor in the success of VHS was tape length (three hours, enough for a feature film, to Beta’s one hour), which was more important to consumers than Beta’s superior video quality.
  8. Short-term vs. long-term thinking. One part of goodness is time: how long does this innovation need to be used for? Many superior ideas are rejected by societies interested in cheaper, shorter-term gains. In the 1930s, major cities in the U.S. had public transportation—trolleys and tram systems modeled on successful designs from Europe. But in the rush of the 1950s, and the thrill of automotive power, those street- cars were removed and replaced with new lanes for cars. Today, many cities regret these changes and approximate trolleys with new light-rail systems. The goodness of ideas changes depending on how far into the future their impact is considered.

The next time you witness a great idea rejected, or a bad idea accepted, this list will help reveal the true factors at work.

If you liked this you should pick up a copy of the very popular book, The Myths of Innovation.

5 Responses to “Why The Best Idea Doesn’t Always Win”

  1. Mike Nitabach

    I consider Myths your best book, and I’ve read them all.

  2. Billy Pittard

    Great article! Lots of insightful observations.

    I’d suggest one more category for the reasons the best ideas don’t always win. The retail market has become dominated by very large distributors. The relationships between the very large distributors and the very large suppliers has severely limited the opportunity for innovative products from smaller suppliers to reach the marketplace. A lesser product from a large supplier will shut out a greater product from a smaller supplier because the distributors avoid doing anything that might upset their relationships with the giant suppliers. Before the era of the giant retailers, there were numerous smaller retailers where new products could be introduced without having to be in every GiantMart in the whole USA. Products could be introduced locally or regionally and build up to a national presence based on their success with a smaller customer base. In the GiantMart scenario a new product must be introduced nationwide on day one. That is an enormous burden for a smaller supplier. The net result is that bad products from giant companies trump better products from smaller companies – and the better ideas lose.

  3. Sofia

    Great article! I’ve always been fascinated with the topic of innovation. I took a class on this for college as well as attended talks on entrepreneurship and innovation but they never discussed this. This is super helpful.



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