Stop the Stalling – Ideas for Spreading Innovation

Why is it that certain innovations spread faster than others?  After all, everyone should rush to a game-changer, right?

lightbulbThat’s the topic of an article on The New Yorker from Dr. Atul Gawande.  In the article, Dr. Gawande dissects (excuse the pun) two very important medical innovations that began during the 1800s, each having very different adoption rates.

The first innovation examined was surgical anesthesia, which went from being used in a couple of test cases to a surgical tool used in various regions around the globe in less than a year.  The second innovation was antiseptics, which took decades to be widely used.

Why is it that both innovations, while both very important, spread at radically different rates?

Dr. Gawande identifies some of the following characteristics:

1. Pain – Both medical advancements solved pain in one form or another for patients.  However, only anesthesia solved an immediate pain for the surgeons, as well.  Before anesthesia, surgeons would have to fight and hold down screaming patients who simply had to deal with the pain.

The early composition of antiseptics, while beneficial to patients, actually caused additional pain in the form of chemical burns for surgeons who handled them.

2. Visibility – I can see an individual in pain caused by a fresh wound.  What I don’t see are the germs that might be crawling into that wound to later cause infection.  The visibility of a problem plays a key role in how quickly we prioritize a resolution.surgical team working

3. Speed – Anesthesia solved a pain that could be immediately felt.  Antiseptics solved a pain that would come much later.

You may have heard of a term called “hyperbolic discounting” or “delay discounting”.  Various studies have shown that in many cases, when presented with an immediate reward with a smaller payoff, compared to a reward that will come later with a larger payoff, the greater reward is discounted in our minds.

As an example, I could give you a choice to receive $10 now, or $20 in a month.  If you wait a month, the reward is greater, but the downside is that you have to be patient to receive it.  We know $20 is greater than $10, but the perceived wait to receive that money causes us to discount the overall value of that $20 bill.  We love immediate gratification, and in many cases, tend to lean towards choices that fulfill that need.

4. Sacrifice – Related the number 1 above, the perceived hassle of dealing with chemical burns from antiseptics likely caused most surgeons to simple say “It’s not worth it.”

These same characteristics can be applied to the spread of other ideas and innovations, as well. Keeping all of these questions in mind can increase the spread at which they are adopted:

  • How painful is it to implement?  Is there a way to minimize the potential impact?
  • Does it solve a problem perceived by many?  If not, is there a way to increase awareness of the issue?
  • How fast does it solve the problem?  Is there a way the move up the time table?
  • Does it require individuals to give up something they cherish as a trade-off?  How can you limit the trade-off?

There is a lot more to Dr. Gawande’s article about the spread of new ideas, so I highly recommend it for a fascinating read.

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