How researchers get heard
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Find the Totem

Taking ideas to impact: So many articles, so few of them useful.

But that’s OK, because we also have computer programmer Kent Beck’s astonishingly good “Idea to Impact,” which nearly fills the gap by itself. (Thanks to my colleague Tobie Langel reminding me of it.)

Beck says this small essay took him 18 years to write, describing a process he’s been stumbling toward for more than 30 years. “I had no idea how to get from my ideas to actually having impact,” he writes about the beginning of his career. But now, “having tried unsuccessfully many times and successfully a few times, I now recognize the outlines of a sequence that seems to improve my chances.” And, I would add, your chances, too.

Beck’s sequence feels remarkably old-school:

  • First, adopt the idea personally. For Beck, trying an idea out on yourself is the only way to explore it — especially to find out at very low cost if it completely sucks. Adopting an idea yourself also allows you to amass personal stories of use and get skin in the game, both useful as you advocate for the idea later. How might you as researcher adopt your idea personally? Try writing a detailed outline of the idea to see what’s missing.
  • Next, start talking about it with others 1:1. Your story will be terrible at first, Beck cautions, which is good — because you’ll get a lot of feedback on the idea itself as well as how to improve your explanation quickly. Eventually, he adds, after a dozen (or dozens) of these encounters, you’ll refine what you say into a patter — an efficient, effective way of conveying the idea.
  • Then, find your totem. During these conversations, Beck also tests potential “totems” for the idea — the “intellectual and emotional hooks that will interest and motivate other people” to consider adopting the idea. More on totems in a second.
  • Finally: Broadcast the idea repeatedly. A lot. For a long time. When you find a good totem and your idea has been validated by others, repeat the idea in every channel you have for broadcasting it for years, perhaps even decades, before seeing progress. “Every idea I’ve turned into impact I have repeated for years,” Beck writes. (A message he repeats at least four or five times in the essay.)

As a researcher, you might just compress #1, #2 and #3, although I’d caution against skipping over outlining the idea. Also: Your period of repetition might be months instead of years, depending on whose behavior you’re trying to change. (But don’t count on it.)

There are so many great nuggets in “Idea to Impact” — but the “totem” is perhaps the richest and most valuable for the researcher who also functions as a public expert. You can succeed in spreading your idea without a totem, kind of like you can theoretically get from LA to NYC hitchhiking. The totem is the supersonic conduit between your idea and your audience, connecting them in an immediate, electrical way.

Many things can function as totems — Beck’s list includes a cute or cool name; a motto (“Kill the mainframe”); a metric; a mascot; a gesture; a vision of the utopia the idea will generate; an abbreviation; a story about the application of the idea; a diagram of the idea; and (most potently) the idea’s own birth story. But how do you find the totem for your idea? For Beck, it’s an intuitive process:

I’ll be in the middle of an explanation, not really knowing what I’m going to say next, when a visualization pops into my head. With my inner editor securely bound and gagged I try it out.

Researchers typically get impatient and grab the first totem that occurs to them. But the right totem is almost never one of the obvious initial options on the table. Luring it into the open requires time, patience, courage and the ability to withstand failure, testing the wrong totems.

Finally: Getting your research to impact is not the same as getting your idea to impact. The former is a set of tactical strikes; the latter is a multi-month cross-country expedition. The long process of discovery is everything, because moving from personal adoption through 1:1 testing to totem to broadcasting truly discovers the full idea as it can be communicated and used.