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  • Writer's picturekarri winn

Diffusion of Innovation

How we make choices in the context of strategy and innovation clearly matters. Often choices are made in favor of personal bias, emotional preference or not having the benefit of theoretical structure. Only dedication to one’s inner word and the steadfast cultivation of intellectual humility can address the first two issues.

This is a brief article to share one of the great analytical tools I was exposed to in graduate school, the sociology of the diffusion of innovation (DoI). I believe the scientific paradigm for this study as laid out by esteemed researcher Dr. Everett Rogers, is a most potent cognitive tool for decision making and planning. Roger’s seminal book Diffusion of Innovation is a sociological inquiry examining how people make decisions. This is often referred to in business and marketing as adoption, adoption rate or adoption curve all of which measure the rate and number of people who choose to adopt a product, service or idea. Adoption is the specific instance when a person chooses to buy or use a product, service or an idea.

Everett Rogers is considered the seminal expert on this branch of sociology. His book, Diffusion of Innovation, contains a plethora of information that is easy and fascinating to read. Understanding the basic implications of diffusion research is an invaluable tool for decision-making especially as it relates to communicating important complex information.

As many of my peers are working in businesses and organizations addressing complex issues related to the wide umbrella tag sustainability this is a critical cognitive structure. Coupling DoI with an understanding of fundamental human needs engenders capacity to differentiate between what Max-Neef refers to as true and false satisfiers. The more successful we can become as a group of actors dissemination products, services and ideas that satisfy authentic needs that are culturally relevant and importantly that are designed within the parameters of natural scale and limit of place (see Tools of Conviviality, Illich 1973), the more we can realize collective efficacy in creating system-wide transformation as we navigate the uncertainty of emerging futures.

Important Elements of Diffusion

An adoption / diffusion curve measures the rate at which diffusion occurs against the total possible (estimated) potential number of people that can or would adopt a product, idea or service. Different kinds of products have naturally larger markets. An Apple iPod, for example, might have a total predicted market of 3.5-5 billion users whereas a ticket on a Virgin trip to space may be 100,000 people (just a guess J at least until supply can expand and the ticket price begins to drop). Understanding context matters and should influence what information and how you bring it to your potential customers in order to hasten the adoption rate.

Adoption Categories

An adoption curve can be segmented into five distinct categories of people as measured and defined by psychological and class-based attributes.


This is the smallest category in every curve; it could be one person or a team that in fact generates the product, service or idea.

Early Adopters

There is a high correlate to upper class, college educated people and the ability and/or willingness to take risks. Early adopters are the mavens as Gladwell portrays in his book Tipping Point. They are risk takers; and notably, they generally have the means to survive the risk.

Early Majority

The rate of adoption is picking up. These are the first people influenced through the networks of mavens and salespeople (also a Gladwell identifier). Once the innovation has reached this population, adoption is well on its way; more people will be able to see, try or compare it to something else fueling the adoption rate.

Late Majority

These people still haven’t watched Game Of Thrones. Sometimes but not always this category correlates to middle or lower class populations who might have financial or time barriers that prevent them from adopting the product.


This person gets their first iPhone after it has been on the market for 10 years - or perhaps never. Finally my grandmother got an answering machine around 2000 – but then she never used it before she died 8 years later. For every innovation, there is always a group who potentially could adopt the innovation but will be extremely slow or reticent to adopt. Often elderly or people accustomed to things working in a certain way are the most reluctant to make change will fall into this category.

Influencing the Rate of Adoption

According to Rogers’ research there are five things that psychologically, i.e., behaviorally, influence the rate of adoption.


The actual ability to see the product or service or to see as mental model (symbol) an idea increases the rate of adoption, e.g., a mannequin in the storefront window wearing the Armani suit, a picture of the beachfront in a hotel ad in Spa Magazine.


The ability to experience with the body, to try the innovation hastens adoption, e.g., trying on the Armani suit, getting a “free night” at the vacation rental, first year American Express fee waived.


The ability to compare the new innovation with an existing innovation, e.g., Google+ is like or not like Facebook, the service of the new restaurant is not as good as the old restaurant. People make decisions often based on what they already know – finding a comparison helps people dispel uncertainty.

Perceived Relative Advantage

While Rogers himself did not stress the word “perceive”, my business school teacher Jane Lorand who taught his work at the Green MBA strongly pressed the importance of connecting with peoples’ perceptual matrix. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder – but we can shape the ways people see beauty through communication (verbal, visual, auditory et al). Depending on the person with two mostly identical smart phones, the lower cost of a Samsung might be the advantage to one person where the voice command Siri might be the advantage to another customer choosing an iPhone. Relative advantage establishes clearly the benefit, gain or improvement made by choosing one innovation. This is essentially the function of a value proposition, but understood holistically in relationship to the other four factors that influence adoption. For example, while the Kindle is easy to use and effectively presents the book in electronic form, the iPad has a better graphic interface and gives the user additional functions, i.e., more value for the money.


This is the only attribute that works contra-indicatively. To the degree something is complex it retards diffusion of innovation. This is clearly evident in any arena attempting to build a shared knowledge (adoption of ideas) related to living systems. For example, talking about environmental issues such as climate change is absolutely hampered by peoples (general) inability to easily process complex information. This is the most troubling area where we are likely to see people replacing reason with emotional preference. This happens because thinking inside complexity requires unique cognitive skills that are often bespoke and reserved for people achieving upper levels of education. This is incredibly unfortunate – but more on that in a different blog!

Finding the path of simplicity especially in the face of complex issues like online identity, food systems, health + well-being, immigration, gun violence (and the list tarries on) is of vital importance to cultivate traction toward adoption of innovations that can positively shift conditions of crisis to conditions of vitality within a complex scenario.


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