Mini-Me: Slow Ideas

Cultural Intelligence
Who?  Mini-Me?
Who? Mini-Me?



Why do some innovations spread so swiftly and others so slowly? Consider the very different trajectories of surgical anesthesia and antiseptics, both of which were discovered in the nineteenth century.

Atul Gawande

New Yorker, 29 July 2013


So what were the key differences? First, one combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); the other combatted an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors.

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This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.

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Preventing hypothermia is a perfect example of an unsexy task: it demands painstaking effort without immediate reward.

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The most common approach to changing behavior is to say to people, “Please do X.”

Then, there’s the law-and-order approach: “You must do X.”

The kinder version of “You must do X” is to offer incentives rather than penalties.

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To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way.  So what about just working with health-care workers, one by one, to do just that?

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But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

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As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.

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It attacked the problem in a way that is routinely dismissed as impractical and inefficient: by going door to door, person by person, and just talking.

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The effort was, inevitably, imperfect. But, by going door to door through more than seventy-five thousand villages, they showed twelve million families how to save their children.

The program was stunningly successful. Use of oral rehydration therapy skyrocketed. The knowledge became self-propagating. The program had changed the norms.

Coaxing villagers to make the solution with their own hands and explain the messages in their own words, while a trainer observed and guided them, achieved far more than any public-service ad or instructional video could have done.

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“She was nice.”

“She was nice?”

“She smiled a lot.”

“That was it?”

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

That, I think, was the answer.