Using the Law of Diffusion of Innovation in your plan for Operational Excellence

The Law of Diffusion of Innovation explains how the messages about our products and services get diffused as they travel through the marketplace.  It also can explain how a Company’s message (Vision) gets diffused as it travels through the workforce, creating performance gaps and problems in your operational plan.

It’s a given that if you own a small business, you have to innovate.  It’s a given that if you own a small business, especially if you are the founder, you have to understand the “WHY” you do it even more than you understand the “WHAT” you do (although everyone can explain this), and the “HOW” you do it (and about half of your people will be able to explain this).  Guess what? Fully 53% of the time, not even the founders of the business, or the leadership of the business, can tell me “WHY” they are doing what they are doing.

Sometimes the WHY gets lost after a big change in the business circumstances – like going public, opening a new branch, or some big tragedy.  But sometimes it gets lost just because the leadership assumes that everyone knows it and, far more detrimental, that everyone believes in it.

So let’s look at the Law of Diffusion of Innovation and how to use it to enhance operational excellence:


basic bell curve

This basic bell curve can tell us everything we need to know visually about the Law of Diffusion in terms of operational excellence:

The Innovators 2.5%: Typically made up of the idea generating leadership.  These are not always the same people, the difference is these are the people that, in their particular field, understand the WHY clearly as well as the HOW and WHAT.  If they are going to successfully fulfill their leadership roles, it is incumbent upon them to express the WHY to everyone in the organization regularly, consistently, and to a high degree of clarity.

Early Adapters 13.5%:  These can typically be thought of as management, or the people that are being groomed for leadership.  They have to understand the WHY, and buy into it instinctively.  They don’t need social proof.  Their own feelings are all the proof they need. They have to believe in it enough to make the transition from WHY to HOW.  These are typically 13.5% of the target population and want to be a part of the creative process.

Tipping Point (happens between 15-18%): The tipping point is the absolutely critical ‘change in message’ between the Early Adapters and the Early Majority.  The Early Adapters are motivated by opportunity and scarcity.  Everyone that follows the Early Majority are motivated by social proof, not by opportunity and scarcity.  So the message has to change form.  We know this instinctively, but in the transition between what we tell our trusted management, and what we tell our ‘workers’ the WHY is typically lost.  That is where we are losing the engagement and high levels of operational excellence.

Early Majority 34%: As an early majority, we are eager to believe, but we need social proof.  So first, we need the WHY clearly explained and consistently explained.  Then we need the HOW.  We need so understand HOW everything is working so we have the confidence in the WHY.  Then for us, it becomes a self-fulfilling belief.  The WHY is the vision of the company, the HOW is the Mission.  And for the Early Majority, HOW takes place in the training program, since we are pragmatists.

Late Majority 34%: If I were a member of the Late Majority, I don’t see my needs as being the same as the Company.  I see the job as a means to an end, but, (and this is a big but), I WANT to be convinced that I am doing the right thing and, also key, that I am doing it well.  So, I need to hear the WHY, but I won’t believe it until my own work proves it and I can see and understand how it proves it.  So I need a little bit of the WHAT here too.  Late Majority need to see the WHAT in small amounts to be convinced that they can do it.  Then they need to see the HOW (training), to feel that they are good at it and at the same time are important to the entire process.  With this picture, they can begin to understand the WHY. Until then, they we are spectators and very conservative.

Laggards/Late Mass 16%:  These people are skeptical, stubborn and naturally looking for reasons to NOT follow.  The laggards can improve with Training, but they will always look at the workplace as a place to come, just because they have to earn a paycheck.  The laggards can be counted on to take on enough of the HOW (training), and enough of the WHY to keep their job.  They can be momentarily inspired or motivated, but it will be a constant struggle.  The Non-Adaptors simply won’t conform, won’t perform, and refuse to be informed.  Try not to work with these people.