May 15, 2015
Change is hard. Companies launch campaigns. Employees reluctantly adjust at their own pace; or worse, simply continue what they’ve always done. Everyone gets discouraged, and everything moves slower than expected.
Traditional theory would have organizations communicating a vision for change as widely as possible. But while trying to win over everyone at once is a noble goal, it often leads to energy wasted. In my experience, getting 16 percent onboard – the right 16 percent – is what it takes to set a transformation in motion. And this requires looking at change through a different lens.
Insight from innovators
Most business people are familiar with the concept of innovators and early adopters. Widely applied to launching disruptive products and services, this diffusion of innovation principle explains that new ideas and technologies require only critical mass adoption of 16 percent to become self-sustaining. Once the innovators and early adopters are in place, the majorities and laggards fall in line. If you’ve observed people waiting in front of stores for days wanting to be among the first customers of the newest phone or tablet, you’ve witnessed the phenomenon. They are the opinion leaders who set in motion that viral spread required for mass of adoption of a new product or technology.
How change spreads has many similarities to the way new products catch fire. Change is, in fact, innovation. Throughout my career, I’ve had a front row seat to numerous operational transformations, from IT system implementations to post-merger integrations – and each time, we knew we were on a successful trajectory when roughly 16 percent took hold and generated the grassroots momentum to carry it forward.
Looking at change through the innovator’s lens puts new focus on what it takes to make it work. The traditional one-size-fits-all mentality emphasizes adoption, or the steps an individual takes before accepting the change. By changing the orientation towards diffusion, or how change spreads among a group, leaders can concentrate their efforts on identifying, engaging, and exciting the right number of influencers and early adopters, who, in return, will spread the word.
Know your numbers
The first, and most important, step is to understand the total number of people impacted by the change. While the 16 percent will stay the same, the dynamics are different when 5,000 people are involved versus when the total is 50. Everyone thinks their initiative is critical, so ask honest questions about how far the change is going to reach. Is it enterprise-wide or will it be limited to a single department or business unit? Is it internal or will customers or other stakeholders feel its effects? Knowing the numbers and where total population is can’t be overlooked.
Then, break down the 16 percent into likely innovators and early adopters; analogous in change management theory to sponsors and change agents, respectively. Three to four percent of the total population will need to be innovators, with 12 to 13 percent early adopters. It’s important here not to get lost in the math; looking through the innovator’s lens is a mentality-shift, not a scientific absolute. The point is to develop an approximate figure on which to focus efforts.
Identify the alliance
Much like the well-accepted principle of a guiding coalition, the 16 percent approach requires an alliance. The difference is that this alliance is not comprised of management and leadership by virtue of title or position, but of advocates by virtue of influence. While the innovators/sponsors will likely have top-down authority, the early adopters/change agents can be found in many corners.
Importantly, this alliance needs to have its finger on the pulse of the organization. They’ll know the attitudes towards change, who will support, how many will be neutral, and from where the opposition will come.
When identifying the innovators on the alliance, look for those with high degrees of integrity, a willingness to commit, and comfort with becoming the face of change. For the early adopters, find those who frequently voice strong opinions, are tapped into diverse networks across the cohort, and already have communications systems, such as blogs or other social media channels, in place.
Give them something to do
Knowing the numbers, understanding the landscape, and identifying the alliance will get you close to the 16 percent, but for diffusion to accelerate, the alliance needs to activate.
Work with those in this group by giving them early looks at the strategy, seeking their ideas for improvement, and being transparent and candid on what’s working and what needs to improve. This is a group that responds actively and exponentially when they know they are respected and well informed.
Help them be heard and seen. The alliance is a powerful advocate for awareness, so define opportunities for them to step into and own their areas of passion – whether through knowledge sharing, training, or outright promotion. Their involvement and ability to speak to the change based on their experience lends a priceless level of integrity and credibility impossible to achieve otherwise.
Finally, understand that some of your most vocal influencers will turn into detractors that openly oppose change. When you address their concerns and turn their resistance into support, you gain ground towards your goal. If you can’t convince them, ignore them. They’re not part of your 16 percent, and you’ll need to identify others willing to step into the alliance.
Know when you made it
Knowing when you reached critical mass isn’t as easy as taking a tally, but it will be obvious when it starts to take hold. People start prioritizing meetings, and actually participate. Mid-level managers begin presenting ideas as if they were their own. Questions and challenges are replaced by optimistic impatience; people say “let’s get this thing going.”
Too many companies cast too wide a net when trying to change. Their aims for 100 percent adoption end up diluting their outcomes. Shifting the mindset towards diffusion is a smarter start. It empowers a company to focus its energy on the right group of individuals right from the start, and lets its innovators and early adopters build momentum credibly, organically, and effectively. Getting to 16 percent should be priority number one. Once you reach it, diffusion leads to adoption, and change becomes part of an organization’s business-as-usual.