Slow ideas and the power of mentoring

flowerby Jean Rhodes

In a recent New Yorker article, “Slow Ideas,” science writer Atul Gawande laments the resistance amongst medical professionals and others to adopt innovation. He describes how, despite evidence, physicians were slow to warm up to Joseph Lister’s simple methods of sterilization. And, in a recent visit to a hospital in northern India, Gawande described how lifesaving practices  (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? Everything. As Gawande argues, relationships are the lynchpin for change. In essence, the best way to encourage the adoption of new ideas–be they medical, technical, educational, etc.–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, seek to understand resistance, and encourage safer practice.

As Guwande 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.

The bottom line is that it is only when we take the time to forge meaningful connections with those we hope to persuade that we can hope to affect real change. David Olds discovered this years ago with the Nurse Home Visiting Program and subsequent research has underscored the powerful role of one-to-one relationships in affecting positive life changes. The laborious nature of relationship building can be frustrating, particularly in the context of sophisticated technology. But, as Gawande notes:

…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.”

Change, real change, is difficult. To support it, there is no substitute for the trusting connections.

3 Comments on "Slow ideas and the power of mentoring"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Kelsey Tyrrell says:

    I would respectfully disagree that young people lack empathy. In fact, I think they have more empathy than any other generation before us, but they are overwhelmed with how to process it. The connections they build with others allow them to show empathy, but it’s difficult to express it if they’re lacking face to face relationships. This article was very helpful for me, as my agency is developing a new Mentoring Moms program that gives young mothers an opportunity to ask questions, process the emotions of being a new parent, and rely on a trained mentor who is also a parent themselves.

  2. Thanks, Jean, for another perceptive article, in line with our experience at EVkids. We match low-income inner-city kids with college mentors in long-term one-on-one relationships, backed by professional staff in frequent contact with families and school personnel. Over the past nine years, 100% of our senior EVkids have graduated and matriculated in college. There is a similarly positive effect on the other side of the equation: many tutors say it was the most important thing they did in their four years of college.

  3. Robin says:

    Great article and how we need to be reminded day in and day out that our brains are wired for face to face human relationships. It’s such a challenge to guide our young people to understand this, as so many of them lack empathy and un understanding of how to interpret body language.

Post a Comment