Slow Ideas and the power of mentoring

Screen Shot 2013-09-09 at 7.59.10 PMby Jean Rhodes

In the recent New Yorker article “Slow Ideas,” science writer Atul Gawande laments the resistance amongst medical professional and others to the adoption of proven ideas. He describes how, despite evidence, physicians were slow to adopt Joseph Lister’s simple, proven methods of sterilization that could slow the spread of germs. Likewise, he described a recent visit to a hospital in northern India, where simple practices that could save the lives of many newborns  (e.g., placing babies in skin-to-skin contact with their mothers after delivery, hand washing) were inconsistently adopted.

What does this have to do with mentoring? Gawande argues that relationships are the linchpin for change. In essence, the best way to encourage the adoption of new ideas–be they medical, technical, educational, or others–is through one-on-one relationships. To test this idea, he and his team have hired workers who visit birth attendants in hospitals, forge relationships, and seek to understand resistance and encourage safer practice.

As Gawande noted

“In essence, we’d give them mentors…The most common objection is that, even if it works, this kind of one-on-one, on-site mentoring “isn’t scalable.” But that’s one thing it surely is. If the intervention saves as many mothers and newborns as we’re hoping—about a thousand lives in the course of a year at the target hospitals—then all that need be done is to hire and develop similar cadres of childbirth-improvement workers for other places around the country and potentially the world. To many people, that doesn’t sound like much of a solution. It would require broad mobilization, substantial expense, and perhaps even the development of a new profession. But, to combat the many antisepsis-like problems in the world, that’s exactly what has worked. Think about the creation of anesthesiology: it meant doubling the number of doctors in every operation, and we went ahead and did so. To reduce illiteracy, countries, starting with our own, built schools, trained professional teachers, and made education free and compulsory for all children. To improve farming, governments have sent hundreds of thousands of agriculture extension agents to visit farmers across America and every corner of the world and teach them up-to-date methods for increasing their crop yields. Such programs have been extraordinarily effective. They have cut the global illiteracy rate from one in three adults in 1970 to one in six today, and helped give us a Green Revolution that saved more than a billion people from starvation.

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

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.”

The bottom line is that it is only when we take the time to forge connections, listen, and understand the world views and lives of those we hope to persuade, that we can hope to affect real change.