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5 ways to evaluate new ideas

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Since leaders deal in new ideas, it’s good to look at how ideas take form and spread.

There’s a science to the trajectory of new ideas, says Everett Rogers, a scientist who studied innovation and published the groundbreaking book Diffusion of Innovations. Potential users unconsciously evaluate new ideas in five ways:

1. Innovations offer an advantage over current products and ideas.

2. They demonstrate some level of compatibility with existing goods, value systems and social norms.

3. Complexity of a new design helps determine its rate of adoption.

4. A new idea’s accessibility, meaning how easy it is to try, helps determine its appeal. Easy access lets users try a new thing at low cost.

5. Finally, visibility is what propels an idea from its early adopters into the wide world. Many more people can weigh the advantages without necessarily trying it themselves.

Although all five attributes are important, Rogers says, it’s really the first two—advantageousness and compatibility—that set the stage for widespread adoption of an innovation. There’s also tension between the two because the more advantageous a new thing is, the less compatible it may be with older frameworks.

Ideas also spread in a fairly uniform pattern, following an S-curve of few early adopters, followed by a steep rise over time and then a leveling off with the laggards. The S-curve of innovation diffusion is simply a graph of the number of adopters as a function of time.

You’ve probably heard at least a few of the terms for adopters of new ideas, who fall along a standard bell curve: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

Finance professor Frank Bass, however, says there are only two kinds of people here: innovators and imitators. Unlike innovators, imitators take their cues from others in deciding when to adopt a new idea.

The early adopters, meanwhile, already have enjoyed the fruits of getting there first and have galloped off on their next adventure.

— Adapted from Iconoclast, Gregory Berns, Harvard Business Press.

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