How Ideas Spread

What’s more powerful than expanding a practice that improves life? But how do good ideas spread? How does an improvement—a brand new idea or great tweak on an existing one—travel from place to place and go to scale?

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How Ideas Spread: Sharing and Borrowing

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” A great quote, but actually he borrowed that metaphor about borrowing from twelfth-century Bernard of Chartres: “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” Ideas spread.

If your group is a nonprofit, or sends direct mail for support, or has a Facebook page, you’re already in the borrowing and stealing business. You invented none of those. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t coin the phrase “beloved community,” nor the idea that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. Others before him did. The point isn’t to do something unique; it’s to address a challenge.

As you borrow, you’re re-combining other peoples’ ideas into a new context, making something new. (Naturally you want to stay on the right sides of the legal and ethical lines. Borrowing your neighbor’s car without permission could get you in trouble.) Starbucks founder Howard Schultz came up with his coffee experience and culture from the espresso bars of Milan. You may not have to travel far: One of the best places to steal ideas is from your own organization. In 1933, the national Girl Scouts borrowed the idea of selling cookies from its Mistletoe Troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma. If you borrow and steal well, others will borrow and steal your ideas, too. That’s how it works.

Share ideas

Cookies, crayons, toys—as toddlers we’re taught to share. It’s tough at first, but we learn. A big part of playing well with others—and getting things done—is to share ideas freely! “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me,” said Thomas Jefferson. “That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature.” Jefferson’s friend Benjamin Franklin was also great at sharing. He invented or improved everything from lightning rods and bifocals to swim fins and the flexible catheter. But he patented nothing, insisting that “as we benefit from the inventions of others, we should be glad to share our own… freely and gladly.”

As polio ravaged the world in the first half of the twentieth century, tens of thousands fell victim each year in the United States alone. In the 1950s, fear of polio was second only to fear of the atom bomb. When Jonas Salk announced his successful polio vaccine, he was an instant hero and considered a miracle worker. Remarkably, he refused to patent the vaccine and forfeited the equivalence today of $7 billion. In sharing his life’s work, Salk looked beyond the annual return to the millions whose lives could be protected.

But there’s more involved than generosity. Shared ideas are more likely to become reality. “I leave ideas lying around like pencils,” said Margaret Mead. “I want them to be stolen!” In Making Ideas Happen, Behance Founder and CEO Scott Belsky says that the “notion of ‘sharing ideas liberally’ defies the natural instinct to keep your ideas a secret.”

Yet, among the hundreds of successful creatives I’ve interviewed, a fearless approach to sharing ideas is one of the most common attributes. Why? Because having the idea is just a tiny step along the road to making that idea happen. During the journey, communal forces are instrumental in refining the very substance of the idea, holding us accountable for making it happen, building the network that will push us to go above and beyond, providing us with valuable material and emotional support, and spreading the word to attract resources and publicity. By sharing your idea, you take the first step in creating the community that will act as a catalyst to making it happen.

— From Want to Change the World?

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Article: Four Ways Ideas Spread

Curious about how social change ideas spread, Nicole Dubbs and Kerry Anne McGeary explored with creative people and experts “what it takes to spread ideas that others adopt, adapt, integrate, and ultimately take up as their own.” They share four conclusions in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:

    • Where you intervene in a system is important.
    • Stakeholders don’t act on abstract ideas.
    • Moving away from a traditional program focus is useful.
    • Shape the rhetoric and shift action.
Candy Chang’s idea didn’t catch on because of marketing, it caught on because it was a powerful idea.
Artist Candy Chang used her creative powers to connect her post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans neighbors to their own dreams and to each other. She turned the side of an abandoned house into a giant chalkboard and stenciled it with the sentence, “Before I die, I want to ______.”

If you’ve got time, watch this 44-minute video where Candy Chang shares her work in a larger context.

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Paper: Replicating Social Programs

Nico van Oudenhoven and Rekha Wazir described five different paths for replicating social programs in a paper for UNESCO. Here’s a summary of their paths:

  • Franchise Approach. With a central agency that provides “technical assistance, marketing, training and other services in a cookie-cutter” way. The rules are fixed, can’t be changed.
  • Mandated Replication. Program is mandated top-down, usually from a government. No choice in how it works.
  • Staged Replication. Three stages: 1) Pilot, the concept is tested; 2) Demonstration, the program is tried in a variety of settings; and 3) Rollout, go to scale.
  • Concept Replication. Focus is on prototype program specifics but on the components and principles that made it work, which are adapted to fit the local context.
  • Spontaneous Replication. Program spreads spontaneously through informal contacts. Communication is “a two-way process of convergence where participants ‘create and share information.’” 

Contagious: Why things catch on

Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, talks about “crafting contagious content” What’s the psychology of sharing ideas? Six ways to increase spread by word of mouth.

40 min.