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Spreading good ideas

Or

... ganar sin despeinarse


“Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

- Howard Aiken (1900-1973), American physicist and a pioneer in computing


“Often the difference between a successful person and a failure is not one has better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on one’s ideas, to take a calculated risk – and to act.”

- André Malraux (1901-1976), French novelist



In 2007, what was a personal joke between two friends and some light editing—more accurately described as vandalism—of a Wikipedia page, turned a raccoon into an aardvark. Seventeen-year-old Dylan Breves changed a Wiki entry for a coati, an animal that lives in Brazil and is a member of the raccoon family. He wrote that it was also known as the “Brazilian aardvark.”


Which it is not known by that name at all, the aardvark being an African nocturnal mammal living on ants and termites which never set foot in South America. But a year later when Dylan went online and searched for his made-up Brazilian aardvark, he got hundreds of hits. It had been picked up everywhere. The Wiki page has now been fixed but anyone can do a quick internet search and find sources from news outlets such as The Independent, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail

(http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/how-a-raccoon-became-an-aardvark).


This fabrication might seem mild compared with those of Donald J Trump. Fact-checkers at the New York Times and Washington Post were kept frantically busy throughout his Presidency of the United States between the four years he was in power, between Friday January 20, 2017 and Wednesday January 20, 2021. Estimates seem to have settled on him accumulating 30,573 “false and misleading claims”—what the rest of us call bare-faced lies—during his term. He averaged in the order of 21 untrue claims per day, with over half told, astonishingly, in the last year of his Presidency.

Of course, in this age of everything on-line, there are other examples of lies, misrepresentations, evasions, falsehoods and distortions. But Dylan Breves’ example shows how an idea can spread like wildfire under the right circumstances, particularly one born in the Internet age. But Wiki vandalism doesn’t play out well for the good of humanity or kids doing their homework, and is ill-advised if we are to ensure the common-good is bolstered by having reliable information at our fingertips.


So, how do you spread a good idea—not a Brazilian aardvark? You can come up with the best thing since sliced bread but more important than your invention or idea or pursuit, whatever it may be, is how you get the take-up of the information about it, and knowledge of its existence “out there”?


(By the way, sliced bread was not in fact “the best thing” until a while after it was first released, in 1928 in Chillicothe, Missouri, even though the earliest marketing of it said it was “the greatest forward step in the baking industry since bread was wrapped.” It became “the best thing” when Wonder Bread picked it up a few years later. And that’s an interesting marketing ploy. Better calling it Wonder Bread than Chillicothe’s original name: “Kleen Maid Sliced Bread.”)

Seth Godin generated many useful thoughts about getting stuff “out there” in his 2003 TEDTalk “How to get your ideas to spread.” Godin argues that we are currently living in “a century of idea diffusion.” Using the failure of what he calls the TV Industrial Complex as an example he says bombarding consumers with billions of ads every day no longer works. They are everywhere.


How do we respond? We ignore them. We’ve become immune. In what we might call your landscape of perceptual continuity (all your waking hours, in other words) ads are completely ubiquitous. They are on the TV, on your computer and other devices, your apps, on the sides of buses, trains, and airplanes, on buildings, on your coffee cup and all your purchases, on the packaging you bring back from the shops or your on-line delivery, and the stuff inside. Other people you meet are walking ads for clothes brands: logos, images, words of persuasion are absolutely everywhere.


All this gives us a lot of overt and subtle exposure to brands, products and ideas, and we thus have lots of choice, and simply not enough time to think deeply about anything. In fact, almost everyone I know isn’t just time-poor. They are almost full up to the brim with activities: time-impoverished. Exacerbating this, we are mostly focused on ‘me’; we’re interested in addressing our own problems, exercising our own preferences, and meeting our own needs. You, me, everyone, would like the world out there to be shaped according to our individualized interests and needs, but the world out there tries to foist others’ interests and needs on us. Talk about a Freudian conflict. So what Godin says is the deciding factor about how to spread an idea is, “is it remarkable?”


It’s not overly tautological to say it like this: the way you make a message remarkable is to make it worth remarking about to the people who receive it. Sounds profound but it’s true. Say, then, in your work or the other parts of your life you want to get a message across against all the noise. Well, who are the targets: those in your direct line of sight, or those on the edges? According to Godin:


“What marketers used to do is make average products for average people. That’s what mass marketing is. Smooth out the edges: go for the center: that’s the big market. They would ignore the geeks, and God forbid, the laggards.”


He suggests the real task is to do exactly the opposite. You find a group who actually care about what you’re selling or the idea you are spreading (http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_on_sliced_bread?language=en).


He elaborates this in an article for Success Magazine (http://www.success.com/article/spreading-your-ideas) where he discusses what he calls sneezers and hives. Sneezers are people who like to spread ideas more than most. (Sneezers come in different guises. They wear different hats while sneezing, if you will. There are gossips, and early adopters, and social butterflies, for instance.) The more people they encounter as they sneeze, the better. You use these people to cough and splutter your idea out into the world for you. Contagion beckons.


(I know, it’s a bad analogy in the age of COVID-19. But the force of the point is well-made.)

Hives refer to small groups of people who are likely to influence each other. You know these folks: they are cliques, book clubs, church congregations, workplace teams, your family, and your family’s friends. In the world of social media, they are your Twitter followers, your Facebook contacts and your LinkedIn connects.

Marketers and TED Talks aren’t the only ones who have a good grip on how to spread an idea. Academics know a bit about this too. They just tend to dress it up in more technical language to talk about it.


My friend Trisha Greenhalgh who researches into the health system from her chair at Oxford University in the UK and has written a lot for the prestigious British Medical Journal, released a systematic review in 2004 that analyzed 450 relevant papers, books and chapters on the subject of spreading good ideas in healthcare, an area of academia where idea diffusion can be life saving. She and her colleagues broke their results into a number of key categories: the innovation itself, the adoption process, communication and influence, the inner (organizational) context, the outer (inter-organizational) context, and the implementation/ sustainability process.


These scholars focused, like Godin, on how the idea fits with its intended adopters—but they went further in describing adoption as a process: a flowing river of activity in delivering an idea downstream. This forces the person wanting to prosecute the idea to think about the consequences and antecedents following the original light bulb moment, through to what happens to the idea along its journey, to eventually either widespread take-up, or being ignored. Or perhaps worse, somewhere in-between.


In discussing the innovation itself Greenhalgh and her team argued that innovators must consider; compatibility—the better the idea is suited to the intended adopters the more successful it will be; complexity—it must be simple enough to understand, and just complicated enough for people to think it’s worthwhile learning about or using; trialability—such that adopters can experiment with it first; observability—are the benefits of adopting the innovation clear; and re-invention—is the idea malleable and adaptable to the adopters’ current way of doing or seeing things. I’d add another, which we might call ownability: do adopters come to think they had something to do with it or that they are brilliant for using the idea?


Greenhalgh and her co-researchers concluded by saying there’s a need for a more complex understanding of adoption of innovations, one that acknowledges adoption as a process deeply affected by the wants and needs of the potential adopters. They note the compelling point that “people are not passive recipients of innovations.” Instead they react and interact with an idea, they play with it, re-invent it, make it their own. So any idea, product, or innovation you are promoting must stand this user-oriented test.


So it seems, knowing your sneezers and your hives is important, but there are other telling factors in exploiting ideas that are useful too. All up, this means more than just marketing to “laggards”, or the people “on the edges”. It means knowing your message, its usefulness, its fit with people and why it fits, and appreciating the complex journey through which ideas and innovations travel, and then take hold. Or don’t, as the case may be.

The most successful popularizer of this phenomenon, by the way, is Malcolm Gladwell. In his famous book The Tipping Point he describes how any idea has to get just to its maximum point in the arc of acceptance: the boiling point, critical mass, threshold, epidemic; the juncture at which it’s ready to begin the avalanche. A sticky idea or innovation might then speed up into the acceptability and popularity we know as the iPhone, the Happy Meal, Facebook, the MRI machine, or use of the words “like” and “awesome” amongst teenagers.


People like me steeped in complexity theory know this inflection point where everyone takes something up as a phase transition. The irony is amongst popular science book consumers, “Malcolm Gladwell” himself manifests as an idea that’s tipped – he is the turnkey, the meme, the lever for change, the creator of a sequence of phase transitions. Every time he writes a new book—such as Blink, Outliers, David and Goliath, Talking to Strangers, and The Bomber Mafia—they become runaway successes; their own individual tipping points amongst a distinctive tipping-point-author.


That’s a very-useful-to-know kind of spread; of ideas packaged in book form by a meme packaged into a human form, labelled “Malcolm Gladwell”. A series of tipping points emanating from a tipping point.


Perhaps we can summarize all this knowledge about message spread and take-up. There’s many spread possibilities, and even a typology of how to spread.


You can diffuse an idea—but that’s rather passive. You can nudge it along, kind of subtly, which has a bit more agency—someone has to be the nudger. You can disseminate an idea—and that means you are active in doing things to help it get taken up. Or you can implement it—meaning, you formally plan for it, then stage its adoption.


But here’s a phrase in Spanish I love: ganar sin despeinarse. Applied often to hot soccer stars playing the world game, it means to win without even messing up—not even your hair.


If next time you want to spread your idea—whether you’re attempting to spread it by trying to write books as successful as Gladwell’s, or you want to be the next Gladwell, or you plan to diffuse, nudge, disseminate or implement something—try emulating the Spanish-Latino soccer stars approach.


You’ll look attractive and accomplished while you’re doing it, and if you succeed and even if you don’t, you’ll be nicely coiffured. That’s always a good look while you’re trying to get heard above the cacophony of modern life.


Further reading:


Godin, Seth (2003). How to get your ideas to spread. TED2003. Feb 2003. http://www.ted.com/talks/seth_godin_on_sliced_bread?language=en


Greenhalgh, Trisha, Robert, Glenn, Bate, Paul, Kyriakidou, Olympia, Macfarlane, Fraser, Peacock, Richard (2004). How to Spread Good Ideas: A systematic review of the literature on diffusion, dissemination and sustainability of innovations in health service delivery and organization. Report for the National Co-ordinating Centre for NHS Service Delivery and Organisation, April 2004.


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