Why most ideas fail

Why most ideas fail – fascinating insights from the world of science

We all have great ideas. And we often need the help of others to let them shine. But getting people to support our brainchild is easier said than done. We know – and have probably experienced firsthand – that people don’t always do what we like them to do. Sometimes they just don’t seem to care about our idea and we wonder why they don’t see the same benefits that we’re seeing. Sometimes they seem to make all the wrong moves and we wonder, “How difficult can it be?” And sometimes they just seem too busy with other things, and we think, “Why don’t you push a little harder?” Just like we do.

We all struggle to get our ideas across. And the surprising truth is that failure doesn’t come so much because of the quality of the idea, but because of age-old, programmed human behaviour.

When our new idea – whether it’s a project, a corporate strategy, a business plan, or a policy to improve the education system – comes into contact with million-year-old human dynamics, our idea is in trouble. These human complexities are so powerful that they can override our own rational thinking and stop us from executing our own ideas, as happens every New Year for 88 percent of the population.

These human dynamics – the execution villains – are the reason why most ideas take the long route to the finish line. If we aspire to get a better return from our strategy, then we must learn how these human behaviours impact the idea journey and how to deal with them. Why not join me in the lab for a few interesting experiments?

The Curse of Knowledge

Imagine you’re sitting with 15 other people in a small room. The host asks your neighbour to tap out the rhythm of a famous song like Happy Birthday on the table. You have to guess the tune. How much chance do you think you have of guessing the song correctly?

You’ve just taken part in an experiment designed by Elizabeth Newton from Stanford University. Over the course of the study, Newton repeated the process 120 times. Only 4 songs – 2.5 percent – were guessed correctly.

Not many, is it?

But here’s the interesting thing. Before the Listeners tried to guess the song title, she would ask the Tapper and the Listeners to predict their success rate. While the Listeners thought they would get 10 percent of the songs right, the Tappers thought the Listeners would guess a whopping 50 percent of their songs.

Isn’t that amazing?

The average Tapper got the message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they’d hit a home run 1 out of 2. They overestimated their communication abilities by a factor of 20. So what happened? Does tapping make you a poor judge of your abilities? The simple answer is yes.

The scientific name for this human phenomenon is the Curse of Knowledge. Here’s how it works. When a Tapper – the idea creator – taps the song, the tune is playing along in his head. He’s hearing the melody to Happy Birthday in his head while tapping the song. But the Listeners don’t hear that music. The only information they get is a strange Morse code. It’s very hard for a Tapper to judge the quality of his taps as he can’t undo the tune playing in his head while tapping. The knowledge has ‘cursed’ him.

If we transport the Curse of Knowledge to the business world, it’s not difficult to imagine that when an idea creator – a CEO, manager, policymaker or entrepreneur – finishes communicating and thinks, “I’m sure everybody gets my great idea after my extensive communication efforts”, he’s probably reached no more than 3 percent of his target population.

Houston, we have a problem.

Decision Paralysis

Sheena Iyengar from Columbia University and Mark Lepper from Stanford set up their lab in the form of a tasting booth on two different Saturdays at Draeger’s supermarket, an upscale grocery store in California. One week they had 24 jams to sample on the table, and the next week only 6. Customers could try as many samples as they liked and received a $1 discount coupon for a jam of their choosing.

The first results were as expected. Over the course of a 5-hour period, 60 percent of people who passed the display of 24 jams stopped, while only 40 percent did at the stand with 6 on display. So more choice means greater initial appeal. But the surprise came when they looked at the sales figures. Thirty percent of the people who stopped at the ‘6 jam’ booth used the coupon and bought jam, but only 3 percent bought something at the ‘24 jam’ booth. People initially exposed to a limited number of options are much more likely to purchase the product than those given a greater choice.

So what happened?

Science calls this human phenomenon Decision Paralysis, another villain on the execution road. Again, it’s not a deliberate action, but rather an expression of innate human behaviour, this time at the receiving end. When someone wants us to do something (like buying jam), but presents us with too many options (24 flavours), we’re paralysed. We can’t decide.

Willpower Depletion

In the first part of the experiment, Baumeister’s team kept 67 hungry participants in a room that smelled of freshly baked chocolate cookies. He teased them further by showing them the treats. Half of the group was allowed to dig in and eat the cookies and the second group was asked to eat radishes.

Next, Baumeister’s team gave the participants a second, supposedly unrelated challenge. They had to trace a geometric figure without retracing any lines or lifting their pencils off the paper. After a brief test period, they were told that they had as many attempts as they wanted. They would be judged only on whether or not they could finish tracing the figure. If they wished to stop beforehand, they had to ring a bell.

Unknown to the participants, these geometric figures were impossible to solve. The researchers wanted to test the effect of Willpower Depletion. In other words, would the group who had eaten the cookies put in more execution effort than the group who had selected to eat radishes? The effect of the manipulation was immediate and undeniable.

On average, the cookie contestants kept going for 18 minutes, making 34 attempts to solve the puzzle. However, the radish group gave up after 8 minutes, having made only 19 attempts. As they had to resist the cookies and force themselves to eat vegetables, they could no longer muster the will to fully engage in another torturous task. They were already mentally exhausted. They ran out of willpower.

So, if we want our idea to be successful, we have to navigate powerful human complexities.

  1. If we want people to understand our idea, we have to overcome the Curse of Knowledge.
  2. If we want people to make the right choices, we have to combat the villain Decision Paralysis.
  3. If we want people to keep pushing our idea forward, we have to outwit Willpower Depletion.
Three surprising reasons why most ideas fail

Three surprising reasons why most ideas fail

We all struggle to get our ideas across. And the surprising truth is that failure doesn’t come so much because of the quality of the idea, but because of programmed human behavior.

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About the author

Jeroen De Flander is one of the world’s most influential thinkers on strategy execution and a highly regarded keynote speaker. He has shared the stage with prominent thinkers like Michael Porter, Costas Markides, Roger Martin, Robert Kaplan & David Norton and helped more than 23,500 managers in 35+ countries master the necessary execution skills.

His first book Strategy Execution Heroes reached the Amazon bestseller list in 5 countries and was nominated for Management Book of the Year 2012 in the Netherlands. His second book, The Execution Shortcut, reached the #3 spot in its category on Amazon.

Jeroen is co-founder of the performance factory – a leading research, training, and advisory firm focused solely on helping individuals and organizations increase performance through best-in-class strategy execution.

He has worked with several business schools including London Business School, IMD, Vlerick, Solvay, and Tias. For several years, he was the responsible manager worldwide of the Balanced Scorecard product line for Arthur D. Little, a leading strategy consulting firm.

He has advised 75+ companies including Atos Worldline, AXA, Bridgestone, Brussels Airport, CEMEX, Credit Suisse, GDFSUEZ, Honda, ING, Johnson & Johnson, Komatsu, Nike and Sony on various strategy and strategy execution topics.