Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Slow Ideas: How Do Good Ideas Spread

Last week I tweeted the link to Atul Gawande’s recent New Yorker article titled, Slow Ideas. Today I’ll follow up with some things I think are useful to all design professionals. While the article is framed in the context of significant healthcare inventions and challenges, the results and patterns of idea creation and diffusion apply to many settings. To set the stage, Gawande analyzes some current and historical examples of idea generation and innovation pointing out how some ideas like anesthesia were very quickly adopted while other good ideas took a generation to adopt. All of his example and case studies like sterile practices, rural birthing and cholera were or are global societal challenges.
But packed into his article and case study examples are many stories and messages highly relevant to professional practice and approaches to managing our adoption of ideas and change. Certainly many issues we deal with are “invisible” to some or many and certainly many people favor technical solutions. But as Atul states most successful change is accomplished through social methods.
I liked the reminder about “Seven Touches” both in client marketing and change agency; the clear support for and necessity of face-to-face exchange; the appreciation/understanding of inherent change resistance; and the realization there is a timing or readiness for change.
There are also many good quotes and I’ll note a few. I’m sure you may find more that resonate with you.
“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; making them tedious work, if not outright painful.”
“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.”
“In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, ‘turnkey’ solutions to 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 engineers put it, uncontrolled variables.  But technology and incentives are not enough. ‘Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,’ wrote Everett Rogers, a great scholar of how ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce an 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 change is a social process.”
I think the BetterBirth Project case study shows many useful examples of leadership and person-to-person learning that can be considered in the birthing of organizational changes and new ideas.