Forget Facebook—face-to-face is still how good innovations spread

Stuck? Feeling hopeless? Unsure of your next step? For the almost two decades Idealist has been around, we’ve been asking you—our community—to tell us about the obstacles you face when trying to turn your good intentions into action. We’ve compiled a short list of the top-reported obstacles, and now we’re blogging about them one by one. This week, we present: people issues.

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Sometimes a friendly conversation is the most effective way for an idea to spread.
(photo courtesy Filckr Creative Commons)

We can be so stubborn sometimes. Even with clear information, incentives, and easy-to-follow instructions, a lot of the time people just don’t give up their old habits.

How many of us have tried to encourage people in our community to do something differently—even if it would make their lives easier or better in some way—only to have those ideas not catch on or slowly fizzle out over time?

Even in a field like medicine where innovative ideas can save literally hundreds of thousands of lives, new ideas and improved practices are oftentimes shrugged off as unimportant. Why is this the case?

Surgeon, writer, and researcher Atul Gawande recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker exploring how good ideas are spread. By examining a recent campaign in northern India designed to reduce infant deaths after childbirth, the Better Birth Project, he suggests that a friendly face may be the most important thing campaigns designed to successfully create lasting change can offer:

The most common approach to changing behavior is to say to people, “Please do X.” Please warm the newborn. Please wash your hands. Please follow through on the twenty-seven other childbirth practices that you’re not doing. This is what we say in the classroom, in instructional videos, and in public service campaigns, and it works, but only up to a point.

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?

With the Better Birth Project, we wondered, in particular, what would happen if we hired a cadre of childbirth-improvement workers to visit birth attendants and hospital leaders, show them why and how to follow a checklist of essential practices, understand their difficulties and objections, and help them practice doing things differently. In essence, we’d give them mentors.

He continues…

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.

In the case of the Better Birth Project, direct and consistent contact with trained mentors is starting to make a difference. As the nurses build relationships with the campaign workers, they’re taking more and more ownership over the new ideas and changing their routines.

And why are they doing what the mentors suggest? In one nurse’s words: “She was nice.”

Do you know of other campaigns that have successfully used sociable tactics like this? Or campaigns that prove an exception to the rule?

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Do you really need a mentor?


(Photo via Flickr’s Creative Commons.)

One of the obstacles to doing good we frequently hear from you, our community, is not having a mentor; that teacher, guide, coach (sometimes friend) who helps you navigate challenges, introduces you to new people, and continually encourages. In short, a person you can trust and who you know has your back.

Sure, it can be great to have a mentor sometimes. But do you really need one? Here are three people who would argue no:

Nancy Lublin, Dress for Success founder and current CEO of Do Something, in this MAKERS video says:

I have lots of people who I look to for various things. And they’re friends, but actually I think right now I’m getting inspiration from the people I work with, which sounds totally corny but I’m learning everyday. Especially being at a technology not-for-profit that works with young people. My COO pushes me all the time. She is 29, and a foot taller than I am, and bolder and smarter and I learn from her everyday. Everybody, at all levels of the organization, I am learning from them and  being kept on my toes and having to keep up. It’s a great feeling.

Our very own Allison Jones on her personal blog agrees:

The truth is, I have never really had the desire to seek out one person to be my sounding board and long-term coach; it’s a lot of work on my end, on their end, and is a little too hierarchical for my taste. Instead, I prefer to connect with people when I have a problem I need help solving.

I do this because I believe that when you start from a place of wanting to solve a problem—instead of wanting to follow a particular person—you open more doors. People younger than you, older than you, people in different fields and professions, people in different communities, become problem solvers. You are also more deliberate and focused about what you need, which makes it much easier for people to actually help you (I am struggling with creating a strategy for X vs. I don’t know what I’m doing about anything).

Finally, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales on Quora echoes the sentiment:

I think the whole concept is fraught with peril.

I meet a lot of young people who waste a lot of time worrying about finding a magical mentor who will help them to greatness. But greatness will only come from within you. Yes, you need to learn from others, but seek wisdom from many.

What do you think? Have you benefited from “the one”? Or are you a believer in spreading the mentoring love?

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