ARE ADOPTION PATTERNS PREDICTABLE? 

Large-scale change processes often look random and messy  but years ago expert Everett Rogers (see REFERENCE MATERIAL at the bottom of the post) identified a number of practical patterns that occur predictably when people face “New Ways” of doing things.   One of the repeating patterns that Rogers is famous for discovering revolves around the fact that people adopt new ideas, innovations, etc. at predictably different rates.   While Rogers deserves much credit  for his remarkable findings and giving birth to a field of study he named “Diffusion of Innovation”, we should applaud him for  distilling his work  into a practical, usable model.  Personally,  I have integrated his work into  strategy execution designs for the  past 30+ years–and you can, too. 

Many of you may be familiar with Everett Rogers work as it was widely adopted in the context of marketing to external customers in the early 90′s.  We will be using it in a similar way, but as change leaders, our focus will be on “internal customers” i.e the hundreds and thousands of employees that are expected to adopt New Ways of thinking about their work and New Ways of doing their work.

When trying to accelerate the speed of a large-scale change, Rogers’ diffusion principles provides valuable insights into the dynamics that, under the right conditions, will  trigger spontaneous adoption cascades that travel almost effortlessly from peer group to peer group.    Let’s begin  by reviewing some of the key elements.

NATURAL ADOPTION CASCADE 

Based upon certain speed-of-adoption characteristics, Rogers identified 5 distinct groups that would  emerge whenever New Ways were introduced to a population of people.  Regardless of the nature of the New Way  ( e.g. ERP, new ways of cooking burgers, new ways of serving customers, using seat belts, etc. ) the following speed-of-adoption groups would eventually emerge and create a spontaneous “adoption cascade” triggered initially by a handful of Innovators and Early Adopters.

 

THE FIVE  “SPEED-OF-ADOPTION” GROUPS

Speed-of-Adoption Groups
Form a Stair-Step Pattern


1 & 2.  Innovators and Early Adopters
.- of the 5, these are the two smaller groups.  People in these two groups are comfortable with ambiguity and risk, are eager to try “new ways” and the Early Adopters are generally willing to provide process improvement feedback  “in the moment” which is invaluable for making necessary course corrections.

 3. Early Majority – this large group usually waits to see how the Innovators and Early Adopters fare.  If the Early Adopters report that the New Way creates a relative advantage and there are no serious implications or side effects, members of the  Early Majority  become the next volunteers in the spontaneous adoption cascade.

4.  Late Majority - this large group generally needs concrete proof and endorsements before they are comfortable investing their time and effort with the New Way.   Additionally, they prefer to access endorsements directly from their peers in the Early Majority.

5. Laggards - members of this group manage to fly under the radar screen and are in a state of perpetual transition or perpetual avoidance of the New Way.

 RELATIVE SIZE OF ADOPTION GROUPS IS CONSISTENT

The pie chart below summarizes the relative size of these important groups.  In 50 years of researching how New Ways and innovations get adopted, Rogers found the relative size of these groups remained more or less consistent.  My experience mirrors Rogers’ findings.

Relative Size of Speed of Adoption Groups

 Rogers, other scholars, and numerous change practitioners note that it can take  months and often years for  transformational New Way changes to be fully adopted .  This protracted time frame creates a perceptual  camouflage that can interfere with  seeing the cascading interactions between these 5 groups — especially if the viewer isn’t quite sure what she/he is looking for.

WITNESSING AN ADOPTION CASCADE

If you would like to see these five speed-of-adoption groups spontaneously cascade through a full adoption process in less than three minutes, click on the link below to connect with TEDtalks  ( see REFERENCE MATERIAL below for more information on TEDtalks).

The cascade happens fast…it is narrated by Derek Sivers…

 

Derek Sivers (the speaker) described these groups with slightly different labels and he described leadership as over-glorified to highlight the fact that without followers a leader has no one to lead.      Those two points aside,  did you see the Innovator?  The First Adopters?  The Early Majority?  The Late Majority?

QUICK REVIEW

  1.  People adopt new ideas, innovations, etc. at predictably different rates.
  2.  Five categories of adopters always emerge (ranging from Innovators to Laggards.)
  3.  Over numerous change initiatives, the size of the various adoption groups remains relatively constant  as a percentage of the affected population.  Keep in mind that these are not hard, fast numbers.  They are directional in nature.
  4.  Members of each group share a number of unique characteristics that differentiate them from the other 4 groups.
  5.  The  triggering process from one speed-of-adoption group to the next requires endorsement by key influencers that are respected and trusted by their peers.  The strength of their endorsement is one of the most important factors influencing the next group to commence the adoption process.
  6.  This influencing ability is particularly important between Early Adopters and the Early Majority since the  critical mass that allows a process to become self sustaining  is crossed over during this stage.   Therefore, one could conclude, all other matters being equal, that the Early Adopters perspective will be a strong predictor of the natural rate of adoption.
  7.  If the triggering process falters or fails between one group and the next, the implementation is likely to slow or begin to stall  and may require some kind of special intervention to maintain adoption momentum.
  8. Most large-scale change implementations are a blend of planned interventions and naturally occurring  adoption cascades. 
  9.  Because of the diffused and spontaneous way that groups form and communicate with each other,  it is challenging to see the dynamics described above  in action.  Fortunately, we have a 3 minute video that captured the essence of Rogers findings.

 

NEXT STEPS AND THE NEXT POST

Clearly,  the Early Adopters are the prime leverage point of any large-scale change process.  Select them carefully, nurture them, get feedback frequently and act upon their feedback.     Take  their perceptions about the initiative seriously– you can bet that the Early Majority will be listening closely to them even if you are not.

Transformational initiatives are challenging by their very nature.   In the next post we will explore  the foundational elements of  your initiatives that make them more challenging or less challenging to reach the expected adoption levels.

 

REFERENCE MATERIAL

Everett Rogers via Wikipedia

TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a global set of non-profit conferences  formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading.”  TED presentations address a wide range of topics within the research and practice of science and culture, often through storytelling. The speakers are given a maximum of 18 minutes to present their ideas in the most innovative and engaging ways they can. Past presenters include Bill Clinton, Jane Goodall, Malcolm Gladwell, Richard Dawkins, Bill Gates and many Nobel Prize winners (see  http://www.ted.com/pages/about  and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TED_(conference))

Download the Dancing Guy Video and/or the video transcript from Erik Siver’s ( the speaker) own website.