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Book Review: Made to Stick
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Book Review: Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Death

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

Written by: Chip Heath and Dan Death. New York: Random House, 2007. 291+x pages.
Reviewed by: George Castellion

Made to Stick

Practitioners working in the innovation front end need to read Made to Stick at least twice. Read the book once for pure pleasure with a highlighter nearby. Read it a second time when you are getting your latest product idea ready to run the investment-approval gauntlet for money, people, and time. Applying the insights and nuggets of wisdom delivered by this book will help people understand your idea, care about your idea, and act on it.

By stick the authors mean that sticky ideas are understood, remembered, and thus have a lasting impact. The authors' discussions of practical communication rest on a foundation of scholarly research. The Notes section at the book's end collects the references (pp. 259–276). In a welcome touch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath's comments on many of the references bring to life what could have been just a dry listing. Also in the back of the book is “The Easy Reference Guide,” comprising key thoughts and essential take-aways from each chapter (pp. 253–257). Scattered throughout the book are sidebars to the text, “Idea Clinics,” with before and after examples showing how to make an idea stickier.

Students in Chip Heath's Organizational Behavior Course 368 at Stanford Graduate School of Business helped test and refine the book's framework. His coauthor and brother, Dan Heath, is a consultant at Duke Corporate Education—the custom executive education practice of Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

In the introduction, the Heaths describe how they discovered the book's content by pouring over hundreds of sticky ideas. They found six principles always at work when building a sticky idea: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. Each principle serves as title of the six chapters that follow.

They also discovered an arch villain, the Curse of Knowledge: “But wait a minute. We claim that using these principles is easy. And most of them do seem relatively commonsensical. So why aren't we deluged with brilliantly designed sticky ideas? Why is our life filled with more process memos than proverbs? Sadly, there is a villain in our story. The villain is a natural psychological tendency that consistently confounds our ability to create ideas using these principles. It's called the Curse of Knowledge” (p. 19).

In the innovation front end, the Curse of Knowledge often surfaces. The innovator knows more about this product idea than anybody else. Given this knowledge it is hard for the innovator to imagine what it is like not to know it. Because the innovators cannot readily recreate others' not-knowing state of mind, it is tough for most innovators to share their knowledge with others. The innovators' knowledge has “cursed” the innovators' task of communicating their knowledge to executives and colleagues.

The authors suggest you try the following experiment to make obvious the power of the Curse of Knowledge. Give a list of 25 well-known songs such as “Happy Birthday” or the “The Star-Spangled Banner” to a musically inclined friend—who is assigned to be the “tapper.” The tapper picks out a song and taps out its rhythm to you—the “listener”—by knocking on a table. Before you guess the name of the song ask the tapper to predict the odds you will guess correctly.

This simple game was the foundation of a Stanford University Ph.D. dissertation (Newton, 1990). Newton found that the listener's job—your job in the game—is not straightforward. Over the course of Newton's research 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 3 out of the 120. Tappers estimated before the game that at least 50 percent of the listeners would correctly identify the song compared with a true accuracy rate of 3 percent.

What accounts for this striking overestimation by the tappers? Tappers can “hear” the tune, words to the song, and even the orchestration. This makes it impossible for them to imagine what it is like to lack knowledge of the tune, the words, and the orchestration. On the other hand, listeners are limited to a series of taps not knowing whether the silences between the taps are sustained notes or musical “rests” between notes.

Innovators should not unlearn the knowledge they already have about their product idea. However, they can use the checklist of the authors' six principles to tailor their ideas so other people can recognize their idea's “melody” as clearly as the innovator “hears” it internally.

Discovering the core of an idea is the first of two steps in making an idea sticky: “Finding the core means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we've got to weed out superfluous and tangential elements. But that's the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren't the most important idea …. It's about discarding a lot of great insights in order to let the most important insight shine” (p. 28).

The authors deal with finding the core in the first chapter, titled “Simple.” They use examples drawn from the Army (“the Commander's Intent”) and from start-ups such as Southwest Airlines (“We are the low-fare airline”). The Commander's Intent is a crisp, plain-talk statement that appears at the top of every order. It specifies the desired end state of the order: “ ‘My intent is to have Third Battalion on Hill 4305, to have the hill cleared of enemy, with only ineffective remnants remaining, so we can protect the flank of Third Brigade as they pass through the lines’… Commander's Intent manages to align the behavior of soldiers at all levels without requiring play-by-play instructions from their leader” (p. 26).

The remaining chapters deal with sharing the core—ways to get the core idea to stick with others. Unexpected is the second characteristic of sticky ideas. It focuses on two questions: How do I get people's attention? And how do I keep it?

Unexpected ideas are more likely to stick because surprise makes us pay attention. However, the surprise needs to be applicable to the core idea, or else it is a worthless gimmick. Holding people's attention once they are surprised involves creating a mystery to produce curiosity.

Concrete, the third characteristic, helps people understand and remember. Concrete language is a key ingredient of a sticky idea. It helps newcomers understand concepts. Concrete language also helps people find a common ground for coordination.

For example, in the innovation front end you have technologists, marketers, engineers, and executive decision makers all wanting to take in the innovator's expert knowledge. However, the difference between the expert and these newcomers to the idea is the ability to think abstractly about the idea. The innovator sees the idea's details as symbols of patterns the innovator has learned through longer association with the idea than the newcomers. And the Curse of Knowledge kicks in because the innovator sees at a higher level of insight and often talks about these abstract insights much to the befuddlement of the listeners.

Credible, the fourth characteristic, helps people believe. To make an idea sticky, the idea needs vivid, truthful, core details. The Idea Clinic sidebar in this chapter asks the question, Which of these animals is more likely to kill you: a shark or a deer? The answer is, A deer is 300 times more likely to kill you (via a collision with your car). The idea taps hard statistics from the Florida Museum of Natural History for credibility. It is also simple, unexpected, concrete, and emotional.

Emotional is the fifth characteristic of stickiness. To make an idea sticky, make people care. The Heaths' observation, and Idea Clinic teaching in this chapter, is that empathy emerges from the particular rather than the pattern. We make people care about our ideas by associating them with things people already care about. We avoid the Curse of Knowledge by not assuming that others care at the same level we do.

Stories, the last characteristic, get people to act. A story, the Creativity plot, about Ingersoll-Rand's overcoming slowness in bringing a new product to market illustrates the use of stories. The Creativity plot reinforced the Ingersoll-Rand team's new culture. Its underlying message was, “We still need to get the right data to make decisions. We just need to do it a lot quicker” (p. 230). The team came up with a simple but effective test that substantially cut the time to turn out essential data. Inspirational stories have two other key plots: Challenge (overcoming obstacles) and Connection (developing a relationship that bridges gaps).

Most stories contain unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional characteristics from the checklist of six principles. The most difficult characteristic to build into stories is keeping them simple. Again, it's the arch-villain, the Curse of Knowledge, that makes it difficult to keep stories simple. The arch-villain strikes most often when the story does not reflect the core message. The speaker is “tapping,” but the audience cannot hear the same tune the speaker's mind hears.

The Heaths present their book's subject with skill and authority. It is a first-class and highly practical account of how one presents ideas so they are accepted by others.

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