One core innovation challenge is this: it’s often not enough to simply have a great idea yourself – to get it adopted you also have to get people to give up their old ideas. Here is how John Maynard Keynes talked about the problem:
The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.
In her book The Watchman’s Rattle, Rebecca Costa explains this problem in terms of memes and supermemes. Meme is the concept that Richard Dawkins originated to explain culture evolution (there’s a good, short explanation of the idea here). The brief wikipedia definition is that “meme” “identifies ideas or beliefs that are transmitted from one person or group of people to another. The concept comes from an analogy: as genes transmit biological information, memes can be said to transmit idea and belief information.”
Costa identifies supermemes as an integrated set of ideas that become deeply embedded within a society. In fact, she says that they become so deeply embedded that they crowd out new ideas – which stifles innovation:
This brings us to the second reason supermemes spread like viruses: It is much easier to conform than to make a decision about every issue, regardless of whether it’s deciding the color of our roofs to the est car to drive or the most efficient way to educate our children. The more complex life becomes, the more difficult it is to acquire the knowledge we need to make a correct decision. Not only are the decisions we face more complex, we also have to make many more of them and make them faster. From this standpoint, it’s no wonder that group behavior and group think are so seductive. The alternative is to become paralyzed by too much information, too many choices, and too much difficulty.
Over time, supermemes become so widespread that they begin acting as filters through which other memes must pass, and only thoughts, behaviors, and beliefs compatible with the supermeme survive. This explains why so many insightful ideas and curative solutions have difficulty coming to fruition. It has nothing to do with the idea itself. As Dean Kamen pointed out, the real obstacles are our “attitudes”- the supermemes that drive how we think and act.
How do we fight this? I’m only halfway through the book, so I’m not sure what Costa’s suggestions are yet.
But one idea that we’ve talked about here is the importance of thinking of innovation as a multi-stage process. As she explains in that quote, it isn’t enough to have a great idea. It’s not even sufficient to prove that it works. To be effective innovators, we have to do both of those things, and then we have to get the idea to spread.
If you are not thinking about idea diffusion right from the start, you are likely to run into trouble. Here are some ideas for improving diffusion:
- Get ready for a fight: as Keynes points out, we have to get people to give up their old ideas before they will pick up our new ones. This requires dedication and perseverance.
- Better yet, duck the fight by getting people to help you develop the great ideas in the first place. Here is how Graham Hill explains the approach to co-creation:
Co-create value together with customers – A company creates the most advantage by bringing itself, the right partners and customers together in the co-creation of value. Enough value must be co-created to satisfy all involved. Customer co-creation should not be played out as a zero-sum game.
- Co-creation requires effective management of value networks. This is the main message in Verna Allee’s work (see her latest book on the topic here). If you are clear about where the value is being created, it will enable more effective co-creation, and consequently better idea diffusion.
Costa explains how complexity encourages us to follow the herd – it’s less taxing cognitively to do so. This is great for us individuals, but not so great for us as innovators.
In these circumstances, having great ideas isn’t enough. We have to be able to get them to spread. Thinking about how to do this more effectively will make us more successful at innovation.