The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale

Currency | February 01, 2022
John A. List

Be it a medical breakthrough, a policy initiative, a product innovation or a social movement, translating an idea into widespread impact depends on one thing only: whether it can be replicated at scale.

“Scale” has become a favored buzzword in the startup world. But scale isn’t just about accumulating more users or capturing more market share. It’s about whether an idea that takes hold in a small group can do the same in a much larger one. Scalability is critical to everything from expanding a small business, to narrowing the national achievement gap, to delivering billions of doses of a vaccine, to making a new technology widely affordabl —and much more.

Scalable ideas are all alike, every unscalable idea is unscalable in its own way. To succeed, says University of Chicago economist John A. List, an idea must achieve “high voltage”: a set of characteristics that predict its ability to scale.

Drawing on his own original research—as well as fascinating examples from the realms of business, government, education, and public health—List offers proven strategies for avoiding voltage drops and engineering voltage gains, including how to:

  • Ensure that your early success is not a false positive.
  • Use behavioral economic incentives to spur wider adoption of your idea
  • Establish viability at scale by getting the most out of every last dollar you spend
  • Determine if your initial audience is representative of the larger population