Slow Ideas

posted Aug 3, 2013, 9:15 AM by Douglas McCartney   [ updated Aug 30, 2013, 10:40 AM ]
In his article "Slow Ideas" published last month in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande discusses the speed at which we humans adopt new ideas. Specifically he discusses the concept of "slow ideas" versus "fast ideas", asserting that new inventions, new technology, even simple concepts can be categorized as fast or slow. His subject matter and examples are all medically related, but in my mind it is a wonderful construct any marketing expert should consider. 

As examples, Gawande outlines the dramatic difference between how anesthesia was adopted versus early antiseptics. Anesthesia it turns out, which took surgery from a barbaric unimaginably painful process to what we know today, was adopted nearly worldwide in a matter of 2 to 3 months! Given the time frame, the last half of 1846, this is truly astounding. Whereas antiseptics and the meticulously hygienic medical processes we know today, which arguably save more lives, have taken decades to become standard practice (and any of us that pay attention in a public washroom know, washing one's hands regularly still isn't universally practiced!). 

So what is the difference? And how do you deal with it if your particular idea or offering is slow rather than fast?

Gawande outlines, as I have very briefly above, why the actual value of a slow versus fast idea are in general really not that different. Further, the required investment to implement them isn't all that different either. Anesthesia was so complex and difficult to use safely that a medical sub-specialty grew out its use, at least doubling the number of doctors in every surgical procedure. So while it is true that treating patients and a hospital's facilities with antiseptics is difficult, it really isn't all that difficult by comparison.  Instead, what is different is the timing of the reward for all the parties involved. In the case of anesthesia, it was fast because it had immediate and obvious benefit to the doctor (who didn't have a thrashing patient on the table) and the patient didn't have to go through unimaginable pain. But conversely, for antiseptic use, their non-use didn't have a negative impact until perhaps days later and making a direct connection from there non-use to a negative outcome would be hard, on the surface, for either the patient or doctor to see. The ability to rationalize away the connection is all to easy to imagine. 

So, the lesson of course is that if you have a choice, pick a product or service that is a fast idea. That is certainly simple enough. But what if you've already got a product or service that is a slow idea? What then? 

This is of course the "slower part" of Gawande's thesis, but like a lot of slow ideas it has tremendous value. His conclusion however is very simple. Human to human, person to person, direct communication is the secret. It wasn't training, it wasn't incentives, it wasn't rules and regulations that helped a slow idea catch on. In fact, many of those approaches had particularly negative impacts in the situation he was looking to address. What worked was to put trained people out in the field to work directly with the people who needed to adopt the new slow idea. Through direct interaction - and to some degree simple friendship and trust - the trained "change makers" were able to help people see the value of new ideas and new approaches. 

In the article you can read how Gawande interviewed a nurse that had finally bought into some new approaches to infant care following a several week visit from one of the slow idea program's change agents. Why had she changed and started to adopt the changes he asked? "All the nurse could think to say was "She was nice." ... "It wasn't like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes," she said. "It was like talking to a friend.""

Any marketer or sales person can see the connection to their own experience. To foster change and the adoption of new ideas you've got to get out there and speak directly to people. Speak to them on their terms and in ways that resonate with them. It can be by phone, in person, or through some other trusted medium.... but simply having a good idea will not in itself get the job done. 

To read the full article, use the link above or cut and paste this google shortened link: