Why good ideas sometimes spread so badly (and what to do about it)

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Why good ideas sometimes spread so badly (and what to do about it)

From the first public demonstration of anaesthetic in 1846, it took just seven years for it to be adopted by almost every hospital in the USA and Britain. By contrast, it took over a generation for Lister’s antiseptic methods to become mainstream. This is despite the fact that sepsis remained the single biggest killer of surgical patients. Even the best ideas sometimes spread slowly or badly. Over the last decade Nesta has been exploring new and better ways to innovate and support innovation. For the first time, we're bringing some of these together to share what we've learned.

As Atul Gawande described in a brilliant article for the New Yorker, while benefiting from the peace and quiet their newly-anaesthatised, non-shrieking and non-convulsing patients afforded them, surgeons continued to operate in aprons ‘stiffened by the blood and viscera of previous operations’ for decades to come. Even when there are compelling reasons for exploiting a new idea , a dizzying range of incentives , opportunities and conditions need to align for it to reach its potential.

So why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly? And what can we do about it?

In an era of viral messaging, memes, and ever-proliferating digital communication, we tend to expect that if there’s a great new idea out there, we’ll find out about it soon enough. But the truth is that many good ideas still get ‘stuck’. They get confined to particular industries and communities, or spread in a weak and cursory way as mere labels or buzzwords, without the elements required to adopt or exploit them.

At Nesta, we find this is particularly the case when it comes to new methods for innovating and supporting innovation. New and better ways are emerging all the time, enabled by new technologies, business models, or shifting market demands. Yet these methods - from the horizon-scanning and analytical methods that help us understand new opportunities, to the new ways of experimenting, testing, funding and scaling valuable ideas - remain unknown or unexploited by the firms, funders, innovation agencies, governments and NGOs that could use them to create most public value.

The innovation methods compendium

That's why we're launching a compendium of the efforts we’ve made over the last decade to explore, analyse, demonstrate, improve and spread valuable new innovation methods. It brings together our work on 13 methods - covering everything from crowdfunding and challenge prizes to experimentation, accelerator programmes and impact investment.

We’re hoping it will provide a valuable, new, accessible menu of options, with links to the evidence, toolkits, resources and examples that will help people use these methods in their own work.

But the truth is that many good ideas still get ‘stuck’. They get confined to particular industries and communities, or spread in a weak and cursory way as buzzwords, without the elements required to adopt or exploit them.

The quest to understand how ideas spread

Ever since Everett Rogers sought to explain the diffusion of innovations in the early 60s, there has been a steady flow of theories and counter-theories about where ideas come from and what leads some to be successfully applied and spread while others remain unexploited or confined to a small community of beneficiaries.

Five factors that influence how innovation is adopted according to Rogers diffusion of innovation theory

  1. Relative Advantage - The degree to which an innovation is regarded as better than the idea, program, or product it replaces
  2. Compatibility - How consistent the innovation is with the values, experiences and needs of the potential users
  3. Complexity - How difficult the innovation is to understand or use
  4. Trialability - The extent to which the innovation can be tested or experimented with before committing to adoption
  5. Observability - The extent to which the innovation provides tangible results

While some models draw on examples from the history of science and technology, like the seven patterns uncovered in Steven Johnson’s Where good ideas come from, others draw on insights from marketing and advertising, epidemiology or network theory. New empirical evidence is emerging all the time - like this recent study demonstrating that how fast and how far an idea spreads owes as much to the prestige of the institution it originates from as the quality of the idea itself.

The market for generating, exploiting and spreading ideas

As understanding of the spread and exploitation of ideas has advanced, so has the appetite for specialist advice and new tools and platforms aimed at supporting innovation. Driven in part by the increasing demand for support with open innovation and idea crowdsourcing, the innovation management industry has grown rapidly and globally it is projected to be worth $1.5 billion by 2022. This year ISO will publish the first ever international standards for innovation management - although with artificial intelligence, new organisational models and a heightened emphasis on mindset and neuroscience promising serious disruption to the way science and innovation happens, any quality benchmark will have to be updated frequently if it is to stay relevant. Read our blog about Nine emerging trends in innovation to find out what might happen in the future.

Yet, however buoyant the market for innovation consultancy and support, new and better approaches to innovating and supporting innovation are still spreading slowly or badly. There are four main reasons for this: The first is simple risk aversion to adopting new methods, even though not acting might be the greatest risk to impact. Second, the range of new tools and approaches is bewildering, and it can sometimes be hard to distinguish a new marketing wheeze or fad from an approach with genuine potential. Third, the evidence base for what works can be poor, and the return on investment from adoption hard to assess. Finally, it’s easy to adopt a method in form but not in function (for example running a startup accelerator programmes without the features that make it a success, like dense mentor and investor networks).

We want to continue to identify, develop and test new innovation methods - and spread the ones that work - not only where there is greatest demand, but where they can create the most public value and social impact.

Watch this space as we explore the next generation of innovation methods, and get in touch to let us know how this work could benefit you.

Author

Kirsten Bound

Kirsten Bound

Kirsten Bound

Executive Director of Research, Analysis and Policy

Kirsten was an Executive Director at Nesta and led Nesta’s Research, Analysis and Policy team.

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