Why are early adopters so important for innovation?

Raquel Pinto
Apr 1 · 7 min read

Who hasn’t binge-watched videos and documentaries of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, or Bill Gates, either talking about innovation or showing the fruits of it? Who hasn’t wondered if vacations in 2035 will be in Mars, traveling on one of Elon Musk’s spaceships? I could go on and on with the examples of wonderful innovators and leaders that have changed our lives through the introduction of new technologies that forever changed the way we work, shop, socialize and even relax at home.

There is no space for questioning the positive impact that innovations have on society. Even when entire countries go through tough financial periods, governments bet on innovation as one of the paths to come out of the struggle. But little has been said, at least at a level that can be discussed by the general public, about the role that Early Adopters (EAs) play in the innovation arena. Moreover, innovative companies look at EAs as “targets”, instead of seeing them as one of their most valuable resources, which hinders the possibility of understanding why they exist and how we could foster and promote their existence. But before we go deep into that, let’s take a stab at defining what an EA is.

EA: Who, why & where?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines an Early Adopter as a person that starts using a product or service as soon as it becomes available. This applies regardless of it being a new technology, tool or even a hairstyle. They are, however, not to be confused with Trendsetters, who might not be early adopters, but because of their fame, they start and enforce a trend in using a new product or service.

EAs can be anonymous, silent, even shy people, that see before all others the value that a new thing can bring. EAs are very courageous though, because they take significant risks when using something new, either financial, legal and/or professional ones.

EAs are who they are because it is in their nature to experiment with new things and better ways of doing what they need to do. They are happy being EAs and they feel frustrated when they are constrained to not challenging the status quo.

EAs are visionaries, so why do they accept the risk? They bet on a trade-off between the risk and a potential gain, willingly investing money, time and effort to put it to test. EAs simply are believers (not to be confused with Beliebers, who are also courageous and take risks under much more unfavorable trade-offs) not because they quickly buy slogans, but because they don’t hide the pain they feel about a problem they have with the status quo. Instead of hiding that pain under the rug, they understand the value proposition of that new thing and they believe it can solve their problem.

After this last explanation, it is also easy to see the difference between an EA and a Tire-Kicker (aka Information Seeker). The latter does not adopt a product but just checks it, seeking for information of “what is new out there”, but ultimately if he finds something attractive, he will try to find an EA to really test the trade-off.

EAs are luckily ubiquitous, but unfortunately not nearly as many as Innovators would wish. They can be found in flavors as diverse as individuals, teams, departments or entire organizations, because if the culture is correctly developed, it can become an organizational approach to innovation. But let me walk you back into a path where I’m better versed, since I live and breathe it every day.

Re-focus: EAs of Enterprise Technologies

Before we go any further into the discussion, I’m going to zoom in on EAs of Enterprise Technologies, not because other EAs are less important, but because my knowledge and experience with them is deeper.

Enterprise Technologies are those innovations that are meant to be used by organizations, not only increasing the throughput, productivity or satisfaction of an individual, but also for the company as a whole. The life cycle of technologies in enterprise is much longer than for consumers, because changes in an organization can be difficult to implement. Just to show you how true this is, have you taken a peek lately (pre-COVID19) at the screen of an airline attendant at the airport counter? Their operating system and software packages look and feel like pre-Bill Gates’ D.O.S.

EA’s are not kamikazes neither are they testers for technology companies. EAs do not go necessarily for the “new shiny thing”. They want mature technologies that challenge and change old paradigms.

EAs in enterprise are more scarce and extremely courageous: a bad choice can affect their professional career, or in other words, their paycheck… or so we thought. But, when was the last time you heard that somebody was fired because of adopting a new technology that ended up not delivering its expected return on investment (ROI)? Am I saying that this unfounded fear is the reason for the scarcity of EAs? No, unfortunately, there are other elements that contribute to their limited amounts. But fear becomes a phobia when it’s excessive, irrational, or impacts your day-to-day life. And I have seen this side of the spectrum too, which are not called phobic but Laggards.

As for the other elements to contribute to scarcity, the main three that I will mention here is limited or non-existent research budget when it comes to adopting new technologies, lack of a leadership-enforced culture for continuously improving and renovating practices and procedures, and the fact that nobody has early adoption as a part of their job description, but it just comes on top of their existing workload.

Why are EAs so important?

Without EAs, companies would never transition to newer technologies or improve their processes, and they would stay stuck using operating systems, software, tools, and materials from the last century. EAs do not only help themselves by making their lives easier and more productive, but they also collect invaluable proof for their team or company to make informed decisions about changing their practices and methods. They serve both as scouting units and evangelizers.

EAs are the lifeblood of innovative companies that want to kick the board and challenge the status quo, because they are the internal voice in the mind of the client company that will tilt the scale towards full implementation. Moreover, they are resilient and resolved when the value proposition justifies it. They are willing to take errors, bugs, lack of quality, rough design and more, as long as the trade-off (or even its promise) remains positive.

EAs are as important for their own company as they are for vendors. They provide feedback and are usually very well-versed when it comes to explaining their pain. Vendors and clients need this clear articulation of the pain to move forward and scale up.

Can we manufacture EAs?

The short answer is no. We cannot take any person and make it an EA. It is ingrained in their personality to be risk-prone and open-minded, and also to be courageous. Same way we cannot convert a person into a genius, a sales machine or a social butterfly, EAs are born, not made. But luckily that’s not the end of the story.

Vendors and clients can work together to define organizational cultures that promote and reward early adoption. Alpha, Beta, and Pre-release testers are good examples of this. However, EAs at the beginning of the adoption curve for a new technology usually rely more on the culture on the client-side.

So the big question remains: how can we find early adopters and make sure that they are the ones that participate early in the implementation process? The answer is simple, but the execution is definitely not. The process for finding and engaging EAs has to be coordinated between the vendor and the client to recruit people based on surveys that indicate an EA profile. These surveys must contain questions that explore the psychology and the tech-savviness of the candidates, avoiding at the same time any bias in terms of implementing a product with a group that ends up not being representative of the real population of users within the company. The questions need to explore the trade-offs that the candidates are willing to consciously accept as well as the ones that they might not initially expect. Candidates must show a willingness to go through a communication process with the vendor, explaining both good and bad outcomes of the implementation, being absolutely comfortable to voice out concerns and expectations.

Once a pool of EA candidates has been selected, they still need to be set up for success. This means that any training and support they request must be provided diligently, supporting also their interactions with new users that they might bring to the new technology. Vendors cannot expect EAs to possess the knowledge or the time to train other users on how to use the product, so the vendor’s customer success team has to immediately act on those needs. Regular follow-up meetings, as well as anonymous surveys, have to be done to collect any possible feedback, and data must be collected during the whole implementation to quantitatively support the business case.

So, what culture can client companies implement to promote EAs? If instead of an unfounded fear of punishment, there are clear policies for rewarding the successful introduction of new technologies, the likelihood of EAs being even more comfortable at sticking out their necks for better trade-offs dramatically increases. Innovation budgets and people within companies in charge of introducing innovators also make a huge difference. With the right channels, they act as catalyzers for the early adoption to happen with a critical mass, which in turn makes for better-informed decisions. Vendors must recognize the value of Innovation departments within client corporations, and support them to build business cases with enough information to ensure a faster, efficient and profitable implementation to both the client and the vendor.

Until EAs grow from trees, we need to greatly appreciate them and never miss a chance to highlight how important they are.

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This article was originally published on August 19, 2020, at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-early-adopters-so-important-innovation-leif-masvar/

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