By David Burkus
Your boss told you to “think outside the box.” You and your team burnt the midnight oil and brainstormed until there were no more clichés left to describe how hard you worked. You found a great idea, prepared an amazing pitch, and still your idea was shot down.
We like to think that great ideas are recognized as such from the beginning, but in fact that is rarely the case. Research shows we’re not as good as we think at recognizing the value of innovative thinking. In fact, managers might even be a bit worse. In an experiment by Jennifer Mueller, managers were more likely to reject the very same ideas that got customers excited. The most creative ideas also happen to be the ones more likely to look impossible, even if they are entirely feasible. This explains why executives at Kodak chose not to pursue digital cameras after the first one was developed in their own lab. The resolution was terrible and they didn’t see it ever getting better than film.
The same thing happened to executives at Xerox, who watched as their Palo Alto Research Center invented the graphic user interface (the central feature of the personal computer) but chose not to invest in the technology. It wasn’t clear how it would help a photocopier company, so they left other entrepreneurs to take advantage of the opportunity.
These examples provide some comfort to the rejected innovators among us, but they don’t explain how we can better persuade others that our ideas are worth investing in. Fortunately, there is some research that can help.
Everett Rodgers, a sociology professor at Ohio State University published the now famous Diffusion of Innovation in 1962 and coined the term “early adopter.” Rodgers conducted a large-scale research project on why innovations spread. He wanted to know what common characteristics were shared by the rare products and ideas that made it all the way from early adopters to laggards.
Rodgers gathered data from over 500 hundred studies on why innovative ideas are adopted among people and organizations. The result was a set of five factors identified as essential influencers in our decision to adopt or reject new ideas: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability.
Relative Advantage is the degree to which an idea or product is perceived as better than the existing standard. If your idea can be framed as a dramatic and positive advantage over the existing range of products being offered or the existing process being used, then it stands a far better chance of being tried.
Compatibility refers to how much the idea is an apparently logical extension of the status quo. It’s not enough for an idea to have a significant relative advantage. Whoever you’re pitching to also needs to know how to get from the present to the advantageous future your promising. The less compatible your new idea is with existing systems, the harder adoption will be.
Complexity (or simplicity) concerns how easily people can understand the new idea or use the new product. If you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. In the same way, if you have to spend significant time explaining how your idea will work, it’s never going to win people over. This is one reason why “Like Uber but for …” has become such a popular way to pitch a new business. It might be cliché, but it works to simply explain the concept.
Trialability is the degree of effort involved in implementing the new concept or experimenting with the product. If an idea takes a large runway and a significant investment before seeing any advantage, then it’s less likely to be deemed worth trying. If the idea can’t be tried on a small scale, its less likely to be adopted on a large scale.
Observability refers to how discernable the results are to people trying the idea. Assuming the idea is simple to understand, compatible, and easy to try, the relative advantage has to be easily observed by others. If you want the idea to spread, those first testers have to experience clear results to share with others.
When all five factors are met, ideas are far more likely to be widely adopted. As such, they make a useful litmus test for judging if an idea is ready to be presented to the world or even just to your boss. Regardless of how much enthusiasm you have for your new idea, you need to take an unbiased assessment of it against the five factors. That should provide a good gauge of whether your excitement will translate to success. If most of the factors are lacking, perhaps it’s time to rethink your idea or refine your pitch.
David Burkus is the author of Under New Management. He is host of the Radio Free Leader podcast and associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University.