Diffusion of Innovation

How things happen

You may have the greatest idea since Joe and Bob Wonder started slicing their bread or Pharaoh finally decided to let the Children of Israel leave Egypt.  But if the people are not on board with it it’s not going anywhere.  In fact, such ideas may lead unsuspecting Pastors into serious trouble; after all, it could lead to . . . c h a n g e.

A basic working knowledge of the psychology of transitions and innovations is essential.  Everett Rogers is the premiere authority on the matter.  “The Diffusion of Innovations” (Free Press; 2003 (first edition 1962) is now in its fifth edition (2003) and has influenced everyone in this field.  Following is an annotated summary of his work.


Five stages of the adoption process

1) Knowledge

In this stage the individual is first exposed to an innovation but lacks information about how it works or comes together.  During this stage of the process the gaining of awareness is rather passive, but the new idea (AKA vision) needs to continue to be presented.

2) Persuasion

The individual is gaining interest and actively seeks more information and details about the prospects and goals of the innovation.

3) Decision

The individual weighs the advantages, and disadvantages, of using the innovation and begins to form notions about adopting or rejecting the innovation.  This stage is still mired in an individualistic nature which leads Rogers to point out that it is the most difficult stage to acquire empirical evidence (Rogers, p. 83).

4) Implementation

The individual now uses the innovation to a varying degree depending on the situation, and determines the usefulness of the innovation and may search for further information about it.

5) Confirmation

The individual finalizes their decision to continue using the innovation and may use the innovation to its fullest potential.


Diffusion Categories

New ideas will always work through the following five groups of people.  Not everyone will climb on board, not at first, but at least 16% are usually very open and ready for something new.  Note, trying to convince the mass is futile at best; focus on the first two groups.  If it’s a good idea they will carry it and convince the rest.



Innovators (2.5%) — Technology Enthusiasts

  • Require the shortest adoption period of all of the categories
  • Venturesome risk takers
  • Understand and apply complex technical knowledge to cope with a high degree of uncertainty
  • Not afraid of failure, opportunity to learn
  • Appreciate technology for its own sake
  • Usually younger with higher social class
  • Often financially able to “step out” with new ideas (can afford the risk)
  • Motivated by idea of being a change agent
  • Gatekeepers for the next group of adopters
  • Recruit from this group to be peer educators


Early Adopters (13.5%) — Visionaries

  • Serve as the opinion leaders
  • Have a natural desire to be trend setters, looked up to as “the ones in the know”
  • Serve as role models within their social system, respected by peers, successful
  • Want to revolutionize competitive rules in their industry
  • Desire to be the first to have (always buy the very latest tech update; find them in line for the newest iPhone, iPad, etc.)
  • Attracted by high-risk/high-reward projects (adventurous)
  • Not necessarily cost sensitive (often think “spend big”)
  • More discreet than Innovators
  • Able to see positive consequences of an innovation
  • Provide excellent tester subjects to trial the innovation
  • Gladwell’s concept of the “Tipping Point” begins



Early Majority (34%) — Pragmatists

  • Interact frequently with peers, deliberate contact
  • Also serve as opinion leaders, but later in the process
  • They will require a little more time before committing to a new idea
  • Comfortable with only evolutionary changes in practices, in order to gain productivity enhancements
  • Want proven applications, reliable service
  • The new innovation must make sense
  • Do not like complexity, Keep It Simple!
  • Buy only with a reference from trusted colleague in same industry
  • Want to pick the same proven technology solution as others (avoid risk)
  • Prudent; want to stay within budget
  • Conscientious shoppers
  • Make slow, steady progress need simple user friendly training


Late Majority (34%) — Conservatives

  • Will adopt an innovation in reaction to peer pressure
  • Respond to economic necessity
  • Skeptical, cautious – Uncertainty needs to be resolved before they buy in
  • Often technologically shy
  • Very cost sensitive
  • Require bulletproof solutions
  • Motivated only by need to keep up with competitors or proven trends in their industry
  • Rely on single, trusted advisor
  • Easily influenced by laggards – keep them apart!


Laggards (16%) — Skeptics

  • Isolated from opinion leaders
  • Always the last to adopt an innovation
  • Tradition is tried-and-true sacred
  • Point of reference for decision-making is in the past (“the way we have always done things”)
  • Addicted to nostalgia
  • Suspicious of innovations, innovation-decision process is lengthy
  • Likely to be limited in their financial resources
  • Aversion to change agents
  • Tradition needs to be held in high regard
  • Insecurity in their personal and group economics may inhibit their actions
  • Want to maintain status quo
  • Tradition is the greatest assurance of safety
  • Think technology is a hindrance to operations
  • Did I mention their fondness toward tradition?
  • Usually invest in technology only if all other alternatives worse


Maloney’s 16% Rule

Chris Maloney is a marketing specialist from Australia who has taken Rogers’ work one more step in the adoption process.  Using such highly regarded sources as,

  • Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm
  • Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point
  • Robert Cialdini, The Psychology of Influence

Maloney has noted that once the Innovators and Early Adopters have bought into the innovation, these two groups make up the 16% mark, a change in strategy needs to be utilized.  His orientation is purely from a retail marketing perspective, yet bear noted insight for Churches seeking to transition.  Focus needs to shift to “social proof,” evidences of the new idea warranting continued attention.

An example may be found in a church implementing the “Back to Church” evangelism campaign, which encourages members to start inviting their friends, family and neighbors to come to church with them (BTW, and isn’t this what churches should be doing all along?).  The first time through will naturally see limited results.  The Innovators and Early Adopters are already supporting the program and even talk about how they will improve it for next year.  Here is your 16% already in action!  However the Early Majority and Late Majority are still dragging their feet, “It’s not a useless idea, but . . . well, we’ll see.”  The enthusiasm of your 16% group will productively persuade these two groups providing they keep their motivation active and evident.  People by nature are drawn to their personal comfort zone and like to stay there because . . . well, there is a reason why it’s called “comfort” zone, . . .  it’s comfortable.  The wise Innovator must find something more satisfying than their “comfort” feeling.  As John Kotter preaches, “people do not change unless the urgency is real and they have to change”  (see “Eight Steps to Change“).

The actual number of visitors may not be as dynamic as it should, but let’s be realistic – 84% of your church is still thinking about it.  They will need more time to observe and determine their participation.  Next year, if things are positive, should see your percentage of support increase to 20%, 30%, or more, but be patient.  The Late Majority will not get involved until they see others doing and talking about it.

As for the Laggards, well . . . as long as the worship service begins at the same time and these new people don’t sit in their pew they will hopefully tolerate it.  As long as they are not congregating in your front lawn with pitchforks and torches, you may take this as permission to continue developing this innovation.


Diffusion Malony




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