An article in this week’s New Yorker titled Slow Ideas provides a fascinating look at how medical innovations spread – and don’t.
At the core of the article are the stories of two nineteenth century inventions – anesthesia and antiseptic. Just two months after its first public demonstration, anesthesia was being used around the world. Antiseptic, on the other hand – despite being the solution to the single biggest killer of surgical patients – took decades to gain traction. The author offers observes two key differences in the ideas that affected the speed of their adoption:
- “[Anesthesia] combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); [antiseptics] combatted an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation.”
- “Although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors. Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure. [Antiseptic], by contrast, required the operator to work in a shower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands.”
The first difference speaks to immediacy. The second to ease. All you spreaders-of-ideas, take note. The equation isn’t complicated. But it’s often overlooked.
Take the Surface RT. Microsoft recently announced it was taking a $900 million write-down to reflect unsold inventory at a time when the iPad continues to break sales records. This despite the fact that the Surface RT has some features that are genuinely interesting and differentiating. Times blogger Nick Bilton writes its undoing came from the fact that it made people… think. And that can be a recipe for disaster.
Successful idea spreaders get this. Focus wins. Or, in the words of Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at Forrester, “Apple gets this, and limits options to connectivity, storage and black… or white.”
It’s immediate. It’s easy. Now start spreading.
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