Bill Gates on Why Ideas Don’t Solve Problems

At the end of 2013, the Washington Post’s Wonkblog ran a pretty cool series on “Graphs of the Year.” The one that I found most interesting was the post from Bill Gates on “Causes of Untimely Death.” While I find population level stats interesting, my take-home point wasn’t one about the numbers. It had to do with what Mr. Gates said in his explanation about his graph of choice:

“I love this graph because it shows that while the number of people dying from communicable diseases is still far too high, those numbers continue to come down.  In fact, fewer kids are dying, more kids are going to school and more diseases are on their way to being eliminated.  But there remains much to do to cut down the deaths in that yellow block even more dramatically.  We have the solutions.  But we need to keep the up support where they’re being deployed, and  pressure to get them into places where they’re desperately needed.”

The point about how much we’ve done is pretty amazing. And it’s true. Deaths from preventable infectious diseases are coming down because of the work of the Gates Foundation. They are saving huge numbers of  lives and reducing even more suffering. What Bill Gates has decided to do with his fortune from Microsoft is truly one of the great humanitarian achievements in the history of the world.

But that wasn’t the part I found most interesting. “We have the solutions,” he writes. This is a case where success isn’t about making the greatest advances or coming up with the most brilliant new ideas. Making progress in the realm of childhood mortality comes from properly implementing ideas that we’ve already figured out. It’s about execution and following through. Creating bed nets to prevent malaria doesn’t matter if you can’t distribute them. Inventing a new drug to beat tuberculosis is just an academic exercise if no one takes it. A vaccine to prevent the rotavirus from killing infants through dehydration doesn’t save any lives if no one gets their shots.

A lot of changing the world for the better is about coming up with great ideas, but when push comes to shove, ideas aren’t the most important part of positive change. We need to take action and we need to execute plans. It’s a great reminder to hear Mr. Gates reflect on all that’s been done with a call to action. Time to get to work!

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