Innovators are a bad choice for change

Posted by Shawn Callahan - June 22, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes, Book reviews, Changing behaviour

I’m thoroughly enjoying reading Influencer at the moment and the story of Dr Everett Rogers grabbed my attention.

After finishing his PhD his first job was to help Iowa farmers adopt a new strain of corn which promised much higher yields. He spoke to many farmers and couldn’t get a single one to try out the new strain. They just didn’t trust this researcher who was so different from the farmers. He was a city slicker who was naive about farming practice, so what would he know.

Dr Rogers persisted thinking, if only he could get one farmer to try it out and then they could influence everyone else. After a time he did find someone to try out the new corn, a hipster dude who wore Bermuda shorts and fancy sunglasses. He enjoyed a bumper crop but the other farmers were unimpressed. This maverick farmer derided their way of life, he was an outsider and there was no way they were going to adopt anything from a Bermuda short wearing weirdo.

This failure springboarded Dr Rogers into a career of studying why good ideas are not adopted.

“Rogers learned that the first people to latch onto a new idea are unlike the masses in many ways. He called these people innovators. They’re the guys and gals in Bermuda shorts. They tend to be open to new ideas and smarter than average. But here’s the important point. The key to getting the majority of any population to a adopt a vital behavior is to find out who these innovators are and avoid them like the plague. If they embrace your new ideas, it will surely die.”

It turns out it is a much better strategy to get on board the early adopters, the opinion leaders (about 14% of the population). Mind you if the opinion leaders don’t like your idea, then you are sunk.

The book suggests the best way to find the opinion leaders is to ask everyone to list the people who they believe are most influential and trusted. When the same names keep being suggested (perhaps 10 times) they are the opinion leaders. I wonder about the practicality of getting this list made. Would it be done as a survey? A social network analysis survey would find this information as well as uncover those people who are most connected.

About Shawn Callahan
Shawn is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

3 Responses to “Innovators are a bad choice for change”

  1. Barbara Fillip Says:

    I just finished reading Influencer as well. I found it quite useful as well. The only criticism I would have is that it buries references in a Works Cited section at the end of the book rather than use footnotes. To get a more complete understanding of Rogers’ work, I would highly recommend reading Roger’s “Diffusion of Innovations.” Rogers talks about five stages of innovation (awareness, interest, evaluation, trial, adoption) and also about the characteristics of an innovation (relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability). All of this matches closely with the 6-dimension framework presented in “Influencer.” If you also read “Made to Stick” in the same month — as I did — you’ll find very similar ideas as well. What you have is three different authors (or sets of authors) looking at the same issue from slightly different angles and labelling things slightly differently — repackaging ideas.

  2. Serena Joyner Says:

    Oh goodness…. does this explain the field of KM???? Another great book Shawn – and your list on Amazon is a terrific resource – thanks.

  3. No Straight Lines Says:

    Innovation is good, but innovators are bad…

    Though I hate to say it, this explains a lot. I don’t know if I buy into it completely, but I think anyone who fits the description of “innovator” given above can probably recount more than one story like this from personal experience…