Understanding this is essential in your ability to grow your firm and successfully execute your strategy.
As a strategist, an engineer, and a physicist, I’m interested in the intersection of ideas, problem solving, and execution. We work with companies every day to define their purpose, which is a key driver of success at the core of an organization’s strategy. High-growth firms have a purpose that plays two important roles. It enables companies to redefine their playing field and allows them to reshape their value proposition. What is a purpose, though? A purpose is an idea, a belief in the way the world or our company could or should be. Therefore, our success depends on spreading and propagating that idea. How does that happen?
Our friend and reference point for this conversation is going to be something you may have run across before, the law of diffusion of innovation developed by Everett Rogers (shown in the graph below). The theory behind this idea is that it is path dependent and each category of adopters of an idea/innovation influences the next. This naturally leads to an interesting conversation on network theory, but we will save that for another article. The main problem most people do not realize is the difference in psychographics (attitudes, aspirations, and other motivational factors) between the types of individuals that make up each category.
For any idea to be successful, you must cross what Geoffrey Moore defined as “The Chasm.” In other words, you need somewhere between 15 percent and 18 percent acceptance of the idea in a population before it takes hold and you gain acceptance by the majority. At that transition, how we communicate to the innovators and early adopters is vastly different from how we communicate and the actions we take once we move into the majority. To solve this problem, we have to delve into the psychology a little. For those who have been following me for a while, you didn’t think we would get through this topic without reference to neuroscience or psychology, did you? A great reference on this topic is Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion which covers six principals of persuasion: reciprocity, scarcity, liking, authority, social proof, and commitment/consistency.
While several of these factors are at play, the two that are most descriptive in how we can communicate to each of these groups are scarcity and social proof. Innovators and early adopters are excited about ideas that others don’t know about yet or the status of being “the first” while the majority are looking for something that has been tested. They will be more critical of the ideas and perhaps messengers unless you can show some proof of concept or evidence of success.
Communication plays a vital role, as we’ve discussed. Your message should fit with where your audience is on this distribution. Putting yourself in the shoes of each of these groups can help change your perspective. For example, GirlTrek, which encourages African American women to live healthy and fulfilling lives through walking, was founded on shared values around history, health, control, and independence rather than a call to action for weight loss. This undergirds another important point. Everything flows down from your purpose and should filter into your mission, your values, and your behaviors.
Additional tips to consider on spreading your idea and implementing your strategy:
- Focus on outcomes, not a program or approach. This enables co-creation of ideas to spread and solutions that stick. You must be willing to be bold with your ideas and this comes at some risk of failure. Rigidity will only hinder the stickiness of the idea.
- Rely on existing networks. Small groups and existing infrastructure can aid you in spreading your message. This can be professional organizations down to committees within your firm made up of new professionals.
- Recruit and train others. Find those who can ally with you and train them to spread the message.
- Use technology to reach a larger audience. There are a ton of resources at our fingertips and free platforms that will allow you to connect your idea to the people who can help make it reality.
- Your purpose should be big. Big, bold, and sometimes controversial ideas tend to spread like wildfire. Keep this in mind when developing and communicating with your audience.
- Embrace change. The funny thing about ideas is that they shift and evolve. Once it gets into the mind of someone new, they make it theirs. It is an important part of the process and you should embrace it.
Understanding this is essential in your ability to grow your firm and successfully execute your strategy. Do not confuse strategy design for execution, though. Many firms do this and end up with an action item list several pages long without any organizational positioning or strategic design. Strategy design operates at the organizational level while execution operates on the individual level. Understanding the law of diffusion of innovation will help you translate strategy into execution and make for a more successful implementation of your ideas.
Phil Keil is director of strategy services at Zweig Group. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.