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Speed Up: Going from Concept to Widespread Application Often Takes Four Centuries

Sep 10, 2008
Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.

--Mark Twain

After I joined Heublein as the corporate planner, our CEO once told me I should spend 5 percent of my time adding new knowledge that would be useful to the company. This knowledge searching seemed like a perfect opportunity to study how the past might provide clues for creating future improvements.

I found a seminar that addressed how innovative ideas are turned into practical products and services. The seminar also provided a bibliography that helped me track the advent of various kinds of improvements.

That seminar and later reading firmed up my understanding of how the concepts behind major new approaches that succeeded were often identified centuries before the approaches went into widespread use. In fact, the lags were quite predictable. The delay between conceiving of the solution and demonstrating a practical way to accomplish that solution often stretched for centuries as well. From the time of a practical demonstration to widespread application could also comprise the better part of a century.

Mulling over my history studies, I became convinced that we can selectively mine the best thinking of the past to capture benefits that wouldn't otherwise be gained for centuries. In essence, we have an enormously valuable knowledge bank filled with partially developed resources that we aren't using very well.

I also observed that common attitudes frequently got in the way of making much faster use of such valuable knowledge. For instance, delays in developing antibiotics related in part to the dislike most scientists felt for studying natural phenomena like the curious effect of bread mold in killing bacteria and working with other sources of naturally occurring antibiotics.

Overconfidence in the reigning so-called knowledge of the day encouraged those who supposedly knew the right answer to try to eliminate the superior knowledge that would replace conventional wisdom, such as when scientists insisted that stomach ulcers were usually caused by stress and worry rather than by infections that could be cured with antibiotics.

Few people can stand outside of their current way of thinking to appreciate the potential advantages of the new approach. Why would anyone ever use a telephone to call a neighbor when you could just lean over the fence and have a conversation?

In other cases, people were satisfied with the results they were getting. Why would anyone want more? Driving along in a horse and carriage was good enough for mom and dad, why go faster? From thinking about these observations, I concluded that attitudes were a bigger barrier to progress than physical, technical, or financial limits.

Although I had never studied psychology in a classroom, I had read widely in the subject. The behavioral experiments that demonstrated ways that people act against their self-interest and the interests of others particularly fascinated me. But psychology didn't provide enough answers because so much of its focus was on treating those with abnormal psychology.

I became intrigued by the faults inherent in normal psychology and began to take mental note of such faults whenever I observed one. I began to wonder how such mental hurdles could be overcome.

Whenever I saw someone make rapid progress, I would take note of the circumstances. Soon I began to realize that although foot-dragging and denial were common reactions, taking rapid, appropriate action was also a common reaction.

I found myself appreciating two new questions:

What could account for the differences between harmful and helpful responses?

And how could those differences be exploited to accelerate improvements?
About the Author
Donald Mitchell is an author of seven books including Adventures of an Optimist, The 2,000 Percent Squared Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution Workbook, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise, and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage. Read about creating breakthroughs through and receive tips by e-mail through registering for free at

http://www.fastforward400.com .
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