Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The 5 Common Characteristics of Ideas That Spread

Your success as a creative depends not only on coming up with great ideas and making them happen, but also with getting those ideas adopted by your target audience. Whether it’s the buying public, an art dealer, or just your direct supervisor, getting your work off of your hard drive and into the world is perhaps the most important (and scariest) part of creative work.

So how can you improve the chances of getting your great idea adopted? Ask Everett Rodgers. In 1962, he published Diffusion of Innovation (where he coined the term “early adopter”) the end result of a large-scale research project on why innovations spread. Rogers, then a sociology professor at Ohio State University, gathered the results of 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.

1. Relative Advantage is the degree to which an idea or product is perceived as better than the existing standard. Just how much of an improvement is it over the previous generation? The higher the Relative Advantage, the greater the chance of adoption. Many of the most renowned works of art are heralded for the way in which they dramatically moved their genre forward. Think of how Citizen Kane was able to push the boundaries of the screenplay and camera angles compared to the films of its time. Relative Advantage is what most people think of when they visualize something being “innovative.”

2. Compatibility. How easily can I use my past experience to understand how this new product functions or what this new work means? The higher the similarity with existing norms, the better the chances of adoption. Ideas and people that miss the Compatibility factor are often described as “ahead of their time.” For example, for all of their ground-breaking special effects, many blockbusters films from Star Wars to Iron Man 3 borrow plot elements from Joseph Campbell’s monomyth to make them compatible with the stories we already like. 

The higher the similarity with existing norms, the better the chances of adoption.

3. Complexity (or simplicity) is how easy it is for people to understand the new idea or use the new product. Is this idea a simple extension of logic? Is it an easy-to-use product? If the work or product is seen as highly complex or difficult to grasp, people will shy away from engaging with the product or adopting the idea. Artist Hugh MacCleod reduced the complexity of his work to drawings on business card sized canvas’ and saw his work spread even more rapidly. Or consider the case of Instagram, the app actually started as an unpopular Yelp-like service called Burbn with the photos as an added bonus. It was only after the complexity was reduced to a single-purpose that its popularity took off. 

4. Trialability. How effortless it is for the target audience to interact with the new concepts or experiment with the product? How easily can they try it out? The more potential users or patrons can test the product or view the work, the more likely individuals will adopt it. In the past decade or so, many recording artists and groups like Jonathan Coulton have taken trialability to new levels, giving their music away for free and adjusting their business model to leverage live concert tickets, giving artists like Coulton the ability to make a full-time living from music. Listeners try for free and demonstrate their support afterward. The more they can try it, the less uncertainty there is around committing to it.

5. Observability is the noticeable results of trying or consuming the idea. When new products are highly visible, it drives more people to share it and increases the likelihood of mass adoption. One of the reasons for Banksy’s success is the observability of his work. Many artists challenge social conventions in unique, seemingly playful ways, but Banksy’s work is highly public and easily shareable. It isn’t just stuck behind the glass in a single gallery or museum.

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David Burkus

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David Burkus is assistant professor of management at the College of Business at Oral Roberts University, where he teaches courses on creativity, entrepreneurship, and organizational behavior. He is the author of The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.
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