Innovators deal in What’s New, and What’s New pops.
What’s New flashes. What’s New gleams. What’s New splashes onto the scene. What’s New is the future. The future that once seemed so far away, and now is so close you can literally reach out and touch it. And What’s New- especially right now in K-12 education- is out-of-this-world fascinating in the opportunities it provides for student learning experiences.
In the face of this continuously evolving landscape, the innovator’s dilemma (not to be confused with Clay Christensen’s work of the same name) is clear: keep moving to What’s New, or start building on What’s Now. And since innovation by definition has to keep on moving (like a shark that needs to keep swimming in order to breathe), those drawn to innovating will tend to keep moving, too.
Upon the introduction of a disruptive innovation, Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma (summarized in this sketchnote video) reveals that those who once led the field have a decision to make as well: Adapt or die. Shift practices or fizzle out. Since those who have experienced success seek to keep being successful, they may not recognize the paradox that a change in implementation practices may be required in order to achieve the same outcomes. The tension between changing practice and maintaining success leads to paralysis, and past achievement leads to present stasis.
How do leaders help to inspire this change in practice?
From an organizational perspective, I have recently grown interested less in the concept of competing organizations as described in Christensen’s work, and more in Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations (one of the referenced works in Gladwell’s The Tipping Point), which deals in how communities grow and learn based on the ways that its individuals approach change. And while the Innovator’s Dilemma is certainly interesting within that context, I’m more drawn to the dilemma of the Early Adopter.
Who is this Early Adopter? The Early Adopter is often seen as a leader, though is not always first to change. They are described in a variety of sources as having a high degree of “opinion leadership” in the community, which I suppose is due to their boundary-spanning role as both “first follower” of the Innovator and “trusted translator” to the majority. This video clip from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade serves as the context for what I see as the pivotal stakeholder group in the process of organizational change.
Below is a shot-by-shot walk-through of this clip to tell the story of the Early Adopter:
So then, what is the Early Adopter’s Dilemma? The Early Adopter’s two-stage dilemma starts with one key decision: in the face of the What’s New, do I choose stasis or change? Do I take a leap of faith, trusting in what I’ve seen of the Innovators’ successes and challenges? Or do I stick with what has worked for me up to (and perhaps including) now? More often than not, these individuals will see the benefits of successful changes as outweighing the costs, and will move forward with the innovator’s quickly scribbled map as their guide.
The second stage of the Early Adopter’s dilemma emerges once they experience What’s New. This second stage is wrapped around the exact same decision of stasis or change, though in a more others-focused context: Do I keep sprinting ahead? Or do I stop just long enough to make it easier for those who follow to know what to look for (and what to avoid)? Thankfully, the Early Adopters have a desire to stop and throw that handful of sand on the previously invisible path. Otherwise, the rest of us would be lost.
But what does this mean for change leaders? Some teammates and I have been processing this concept together, and in our conversations have identified a variety of ways we engage those we see as Early Adopters. If you’re somehow charged with leading organizational change, here’s an idea of some ways to use this framework for leadership in a practical way:
- Find your Innovators and watch they do. They will most certainly show you What’s New. Let them do their thing and take the risks that identify the What’s New that is of interest to you in your situation.
- Find your Early Adopters and listen. Share a proposed change, and ask them to talk through the costs and benefits they see. They will likely see the benefits of successful changes as outweighing the costs, and will articulate those benefits in a way that will help to clarify the Why of the change to What’s New.
- Share the Why that you heard from the Early Adopters. The perspective shared by this trusted group will help identify exactly what would make What’s New intriguing and accessible to the majority.
Change leaders, follow your Early Adopters. Their perspective will help guide your team across the chasm of the unknown, but only if you take a moment of pause to find them and listen.