Even the most complex ideas can be made simple and relevant with the help of a story or an example. This is illustrated beautifully by Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist whose TED talk describes social problems that remain unsolved because of “the last mile” problem.
In 1960 India, the child mortality rate due to diarrhea was 24%. Even after the invention of oral-re-hydration salts and a huge effort to distribute the salts freely, the mortality rate remains around 6.5% today i.e. 400,000 deaths, even if the dying children have access to the salts.
This is not unique to diarrhea or to India but to a variety of problems where we have a solution and we know it works, but we just cannot crack the last mile of the problem. In the last mile, this problem has nothing to do with salts. It boils down to the simple fact that “people are weird” i.e. the brain functions inconsistently or is prejudiced in some way towards a false notion. In the case of diarrhea, when mothers are asked if they will hydrate the suffering children, 35-60% of mothers answer “NO” i.e. they will reduce fluid intake for the suffering child. Thus effectively increasing the chances of the child dying. Intuitively mothers ask, “why put water in a leaky bucket”. Oh-oh! Intuition is wrong in this case, and in many other cases where the last mile problem manifests. As a result, persuasion or behavioral change becomes a key challenge for the last mile.
In my personal experience, several products that target new markets suffer from a variation of the last mile problem. The fact that these markets remain largely untapped is often because some mental model is preventing the spread of technology solutions. For example, although millions read the newspaper in a local language in India or watch TV in local languages, the spread of the same content on other mediums such as mobile or Web is limited. I’ve encountered many educated people who “believe” that computers or even printers work only in English.
In another experiment that I’m working on, I came across a different mental block among Indians. They know that English is crucial to career growth, they desperately look for ways to improve their English, and yet when confronted with a solution or a person who will fix it, they freeze! They pretend they never asked for it, yet I have with me a written application saying “Help me with English” from these same people. I’m totally baffled. Any idea what the problem could be? What’s stopping them from going forward?
The last mile is about behavior and mindsets, and often lies beyond the realm of ordinary persuasion techniques such as data or free-trials. Products, social concepts, even human relationships often lose the race in their last mile. Just when you thought it’s all going to work out, it stops working. Everything seems logically right yet behavior does not follow the logic. And, often until we run the previous 99 miles, we don’t even know what the last mile problem will look like.
The only thing I keep telling myself – for the last mile, be prepared to run a different race!
–References and More Last Mile stories–
- TED talk by Sendhil Mullainathan
- “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande. Although I did not use an example from this book, it has a few examples that illustrate last mile problems.
- I request readers to share the last mile problems they’ve encountered in their readings or in their personal experience. I’d love to build a collection of such problems and share them with everyone.