How to Go With What We Know

Why do some good ideas catch on quickly while other equally good ideas take ages to spread and be implemented?

That’s the central question that Atul Gawande ponders in The New Yorker as he explores, for example, why it took so long to persuade surgeons to wash their hands, given all the medical evidence supporting it.

Gawande feels that, if anything, we’ve regressed in some respects. “In the era of the iPhone, Facebook and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether,” he writes. “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.”

But “technology and incentive programs are not enough,” Gawande warns. “Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

Image source: ThinkPublic

Peter Drucker had very much the same basic insight, noting that there was often a great gap between knowing what to do and actually getting people to do it. The key to bridging that gap, Drucker believed, was to “change habits. And we know how to do that.”

First, Drucker advised, “define what results are needed.”

Step two is to see if the way forward is staring you in the face. “It is to ask: ‘Where within our system do we do this already?’” Drucker counseled. Time and again, results have been “achieved not by doing something different but by systematically doing something everyone had known all along should be done, had in the policy manuals and had been preaching—but only the few exceptions had been practicing.”

Indeed, the winners of tomorrow may well be those who best take advantage what we already know—who, in short, make knowledge productive. “The productivity of knowledge is going to be the determining factor in the competitive position of a company, an industry, an entire country,” Drucker wrote in Post-Capitalist Society. “No country, industry or company has any ‘natural’ advantage or disadvantage. The only advantage it can possess is the ability to exploit universally available knowledge.”

What important idea or innovation do you feel is getting ignored in the world today?