Innovation Problem: New Ideas Spread Slowly

There’s a big problem with innovation: ideas spread much more slowly than we expect them to.

Ideas follow an S-Curve as they spread that looks like this:

They pick up steam very slowly, until they either die off or hit a tipping point and take off. The slow build-up is the time I’ve indicated as X in the drawing.

The idea for the S-Curve is based on the great work by Everett Rogers on innovation diffusion.

Based on his research, the population of users is divided into groups he called innovators, early adopters, the early and late majorities, and the laggards. In the populations that he looked at, the percentages of people in each group look like this:

You can see these numbers in the survey that Sophos Security released last week on the reactions of Facebook users to the new timeline feature:

This is being presented as a big problem for Facebook, but if you look at the numbers, they’re actually better than the stats from Rogers would lead us to expect. The survey doesn’t include the laggards, who probably still aren’t on Facebook, but the rest of the numbers map onto Rogers’ pretty well.

All of the people that hate the new timeline want to go back to the News Feed, another feature that had even worse approval numbers when it was introduced. And now people love it and don’t want it to change.

That’s the way that ideas spread. People resist, a small number adopt, and eventually over time, the idea wins. If you’re lucky.

There was another story over the weekend about the diffusion of Edison’t incandescent lightbulbs that tells the same story.

Here is what they say about adoption of electrical lighting:

By 1910, more than 30 years after Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in 1879, only about 10 percent of American homes had been wired. Even in the glittering Roaring Twenties, only about 20 percent of homes had electricity — not because of a lack of electrical contractors, but because of a lack of consumer enthusiasm.

Advertisers proclaimed that homes with electricity would be brighter, cozier and happier, but the public wasn’t buying.

And this is for a product that was demonstrably better, cheaper and safer.

Again, the value for X was much longer than expected.

This is an issue that is addressed extremely well by James Gardner in his excellent new book Sidestep & Twist: How to create hit products and services that people will queue up to buy.

The book is worth reading and Gardner does a great job of explaining the S-Curve and its implications. One of the key outcomes of this is one that makes a lot of the people that have encountered Gardner’s ideas uncomfortable: breakthroughs don’t pay.

The long X shows us why. It takes so long for new ideas to spread that whoever introduces them is not always set up to capture the value from them.

This is kind of scary, because those of us that generate ideas want to think that a great idea will win. But they don’t automatically. One point that he makes is that you work around this by building on existing ideas:

A lack of genuine originality is a feature of almost every category-defining product in the last decade. Was Facebook the first social network? Certainly not: MySpace, Friendster and a host of others preceded it. In fact, the first real social network was a site called SixDegrees.com, and it was founded a decade before Facebook’s meteoric rise began. Was it Google that created web search? Of course not: the company’s contribution was to improve what Alta Vista and the other web search engines that had pioneered the field were doing already.

I could spend pages and pages going through examples like these, and will do so later on in this book. But one thing unites all these products and services: they’re built on something that was working well somewhere else.

Gardner has more good suggestions about what to do about this, and I discuss these more here. But for today, I just wanted to take the Facebook and Edison examples to illustrate the problem that we are trying to address. If you are trying to get ideas to spread, you must develop a good understanding of the idea diffusion S-Curves and what they mean.

The fact that ideas spread slowly is crucially important to understand. It is part of what makes it difficult to win through innovation. This is why we must manage innovation as a process.

It’s dangerous to think of innovation only as generating new ideas. That’s not enough. You also have to get the great ideas to spread. They spread through S-Curves, and we have to include these when we develop our innovation strategies.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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19 thoughts on “Innovation Problem: New Ideas Spread Slowly

  1. I dont’ buy the assertion that “built on something that was working well somewhere else.” My beef is with “well.” I am old enough to remember the old days of search, and there was nothing “good” or “well” about them. Actually, they were terrible. In particular, when their execution was compared with their promise.

    Google delivered what the pioneers had promised. Alta Vista et al oversold their search capabilities and created an expectation that they were never able to fulfill. Google expressed the vision clearly, to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful, and actually delivered it.

    The iPhone is another example of delivering what others had promised. By the time the iPhone came out people had already envisioned the marriage of the PDA and mobile phones. The “need” was there and Apple delivered it.

    Of course, none of this takes away from your point that new ideas/technologies spread slowly. That is very true. I just wanted to make a side-point.

  2. I think that’s a pretty fair point Matt. I’m not sure that “well” is an essential part of his argument though. The main point that he’s making is that they weren’t novel or completely new ideas. Which is true.

    I’m doing some work on my own to see what the research says about how often the originators of ideas win, because it’s an interesting area.

  3. It might also be said that innovation, alone, doesn’t spread. News ideas spread because they promise value, which is a function of communicating why they matter.

    Why did the lightbulb take so long to be adopted? Why, here in the United States, is there such a backlash against a mandated switch to compact fluorescent lights (CFL) over continued incandescent use? Having used them for more than a decade at this point, I can’t see any reason why anyone would hold out beyond extreme poverty or blind political rhetoric.

    Innovation which promises immediate benefit to those who possess it seldom has any trouble spreading, in my opinion.

  4. I understand why an inherent reluctance to change annoys innovators – hey, I’ve gone to all this trouble to identify a problem and engineer a solution, just get the point would you? But suspicion about change must be one of our most essential survival traits so it has tobe respected and worked with. I bet you’ve alreafy covered this elsewhere in your blog Tim.

  5. Brian, that’s the big surprising conclusion in the work of Rogers – immediate benefit isn’t enough for a substantial number of people. His book & now Gardner’s then focus on how to address this issue. I’ll pick up on this myself in another post soon.

  6. There’s actually some great research by Jennifer Mueller showing that, despite saying we want it, people in organizations usually reject creative ideas and new innovations. It seems spot on with this post.

  7. i can solve the electicity problem,if u suuport ,i design a automatic generator.I never get chance to prove it so pls help me”””””””””

  8. Here’s a new concept of reducing the watt-hours used by 50%, by doubling the electricity frequency, using a variable frequency drive in series with a diode, to power various devices.

    If an electric clock is powered at twice its frequency, then it will run twice as fast. If the power is half-wave rectified, then it will run on time using half of the watt-hours.

    This works! It electronically quickly turns the power ON and OFF. The power is switched OFF 50% of the time. The watt-hours used are reduced by 50%. The frequency must be doubled to make the ON and OFF cycle quick enough. For example: 60 Hertz power has 120 ON pulses (or half-cycles) per second. Therefore 120 Hertz, half-wave rectified, is needed to have 120 ON pulses and 120 OFF pulses per second. This results in a 50% reduction of the watt-hours used. Please try it using an incandescent light bulb.