Why do some ideas flourish while others dwindle and fade?

Even in creative environments where ideas are touted as being valuable yet volatile and in need of nurturing they are often rejected on a whim. What makes some ideas hard to accept while others are jumped on immediately?

After asking myself these same questions for more than a decade, I stumbled on a recent study around  the methods of innovation. In it, researchers define a single compelling method for doing the most effective creative work:

High-impact work is the result of mixing conventional ideas with a touch of novel ones.

In a lot of ways this approach makes a tremendous amount of sense.

By starting with the foundation of established conventions, ideas are easier to absorb and communicate; people are better able to understand and embrace a concept they are at least somewhat familiar with.

Imagine trying to show someone an iPhone in the 1870s, when light bulbs were just beginning to make their way into homes. There's a reason it took centuries for the iPhone to come around, how else could you have possibly described the parts that make up the glowing screen, speakers, or touch-responsiveness, apart from "magic?"

Adding novel aspects to familiar conventions allows ideas to stand out in a unique way. Adding a steam-powered or combustible engine to an otherwise horse-drawn carriage wasn't difficult to imagine back in the late 1700s, but it also didn't require people to understand how either engine worked, or why you would want one.

The proper blend of convention and novelty acquires attention for an idea, then helps keep that attention in order to give it the nurturing needed to evolve and thrive.

Scientific greats like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin used this method, as have more contemporary creatives like Avatar director James Cameron:

"In his Principia, Newton presented his laws of gravitation using accepted geometry rather than his newly developed calculus...Similarly, Darwin devoted the first part of On the Origin of Species to conventional, well-accepted knowledge of the selective breeding of dogs, cattle, and birds...High gross movies like Avatar mix conventional storylines with a novel setup of computer graphics."

Your most impactful, creative work will be the result of finding the right combinations of conventionality and novelty.

Ideas which are overly novel and less conventional are avant-garde, while ideas that are highly conventional and less novel are mundane.

So which combinations of existing and accepted ideas are best, and how much novelty should you add?

The right combination is highly dependent on circumstance, but the heavier you lean toward following conventions with bursts of novelty, the better. 

Although you can increase the odds of landing on the right mix for your work by considering one additional finding from researchers: work on your ideas with a team. "Relatively speaking, teams show a much higher probability of hitting on the virtuous than do individuals."

Published on: Mar 21, 2016