Why Some Great Ideas Catch On And Others Don’t

Anesthesia caught on overnight, while antiseptic took decades. Why?

Why Some Great Ideas Catch On And Others Don’t

In 1846, a Boston dentist named William Morton demonstrated anesthesia for the first time. Within the year, it had been tested in hospitals and published in the medical community. Within seven years, anesthesia was a standard in almost every hospital across the United States and Europe.


In 1867, an Edinburgh surgeon named Joseph Lister published landmark research in The Lancet introducing antiseptic as a means to prevent lethal surgical infections. Its adoption would take decades.

As Atul Gawande explains in The New Yorker, anesthesia made a doctor’s job easier (there was a lot less patient flailing), while antiseptics made it harder (surgeons had to shift from butchers to scientists). But the fact of the matter is, good ideas don’t always spread on their own. It took a few doctors/professors in Germany to adopt bleached white lab coats and laboriously teach antiseptic as doctrine to slowly turn the tide. And this leads us to Gawande’s point, that sometimes “slow” ideas aren’t bad; they simply need a lot of love to catch on:

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world–hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

He goes on:

This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors–who are notoriously stubborn–to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

Gawande’s conclusion is that it’s mostly a matter of human contact–that when we’re challenging behavioral norms, it requires not just inherent value, but the natural osmosis from interacting with people over time. Or in other words, even if you have the best idea in the world, you’re still going to have to sell it to someone.

Read the full article here.

[Hat tip: Wired]

[Image: Matches via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.