Innovative products and services feel magical to the user. To create that feeling, however, innovation teams must grind through lots (and lots) of work. Fortunately, we have a playbook.
The core insight embedded in Rogers Diffusion Curve is that the adoption of new ideas occurs in a specific order through a social system comprised of five distinct segments. See Post 004 (introducing diffusion curve); Post 007 (explaining adopter types). Rogers’ research eventually found its way to Silicon Valley and got relabeled the Technology Adoption Life Cycle. See Posts 024–026. Along the way, technology marketer and consultant Geoffrey Moore added a key modification: a material gap, or “chasm”, between early adopters and the early majority. If a company can “cross the chasm”, commercial success becomes inevitable, as sales then occur largely through a social process of one peer imitating another.
To boil it down, Rogers proves out the science, while Moore provides the playbook. This one-two punch dramatically increases the odds of successful innovation adoption. But let’s keep it real: This is a lot more work–and deeper thinking–than law firms are used to.
One of Moore’s most useful adaptations to Diffusion Theory is the use of buyer personas to correspond with each adopter type. Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm is peppered with many detailed narratives about the trials and tribulations new product teams encounter in their efforts to sell to each persona/adopter type. The persona approach is a profoundly powerful way to design a product or service offering that the target end-user finds irresistible.
Below is a summary of how to apply Moore’s buyer personas to the legal market.
1. The Early Markets, Where Things Often Go Swimmingly
In his discussions, Moore provides a practical description of a functional job each adopter type tends to perform in the diffusion process. This post draws heavily on Chapters 2 and 3 of Crossing the Chasm, but with particular emphasis on Early Adopters and the Early Majority.
Innovators / “Techies”
Techies often embrace the nuts and bolts of how stuff actually works. Over time, Techies tend to amass a wealth of technical knowledge through self-initiated and self-sustained study.
In its earliest days, an innovation needs social proof to validate not only its novelty but its objective superiority. Moore describes Techies as “the gatekeepers for any new technology… the ones everyone else deems competent to do the early evaluation” (p. 39).
Of all five adopter types, Techies have perhaps the most straightforward and unambiguous job: to curate and assess new technologies or methodologies and endorse those with true technical superiority over currently available alternatives.
Early Adopters / “Visionaries”
Visionaries have both the imagination to see the world as it could be rather than as it is and the ambition to try to make those possibilities the new reality. Curious and ambitious, they gravitate toward high-impact, high-visibility roles within organizations. Along the way, Visionaries often gain access to significant discretionary budgets earmarked loosely for “strategic initiatives.”
The innovation function of the Visionary is easily described but exceedingly difficult to perform. Visionaries match emerging technologies or new ideas with systemic opportunities to drastically reshape existing markets. In other words, they identify business opportunities for a strategic leap forward. This requires not only an already rare combination of innate traits (curiosity, risk tolerance, openness to new ideas) but also an asset acquired over some years of experience: deep domain expertise in a specific industry.
“Huge, if true”
In the parlance of renowned venture capitalist Marc Andreesen, the most ambitious and canny Visionaries find and bet on ideas that will be “huge, if true.” Their work looks and feels nebulous because it is.
Moore’s critical insight here is that Visionaries balance risk against reward: they must perceive reasonable potential for significant breakthroughs to justify the risks attendant in sponsoring new ideas. To the uninitiated, Visionaries are regularly seen signing irresponsibly large checks to sponsor the development of murky endeavors that are often nothing more than a doodle on a whiteboard. The gift of vision enables this group to see the possibility of what Moore calls “order-of-magnitude” returns in the competitive positioning of their business (p. 44).
Given the stakes, Visionaries present as the least price-sensitive adopter type, and money is usually not the type of capital that is top of mind for them. Rather, they tend to hold their reputations and political capital at a higher premium. As a buyer group for new products or services, Visionaries like to structure deals into pilot projects, replete with milestones and other signifiers of measurable progress. The perception of smooth progress toward tangible “wins” is critical for Visionaries to maintain not only their social status but also their professional standing.
Techies + Visionaries Make Unlikely 💖 Pairings That Make Perfect Sense
At first blush, Techies and Visionaries tend to look and sound quite different, and the collision of their two worlds often take casual observers by surprise. Many Techies are self-proclaimed nerds who dig deep into their chosen area of interest. Visionaries tend to be well-connected individuals who travel far and wide, always in search of a new idea that will spark their next “initiative.”
But the natural affinity between these two types is quite easy to understand when viewed through the lens of shared values. Both groups seek new things, though for purposes that are quite different in both behavior and motivation.
Techies and Visionaries each provide an invaluable service by performing key jobs that advance the goals of the other. Techies willingly volunteer their time, effort, and expertise to curate and test new offerings, but they often lack the social and professional standing to make things happen. Visionaries are big thinkers who share the Techies’ future-orientation, but with the upwardly mobile executive’s knack for imposing their goals onto the agendas and budgets of a well-resourced organization.
Thus, Techies and Visionaries tend to form symbiotic relationships that provide mutual benefit and fulfillment. Perhaps because of this unusual affinity, innovations that target Techies and Visionaries in the correct sequence are able to build impressive traction in early markets.
2. Into the Chasm, Where Things Get Dicey
When Bill first introduced the five adopter types, he had this advice to offer: “If you want your innovation to be adopted, don’t waste time trying to convert the early majority, late majority, or laggards. You only have one audience that matters – early adopters.” Post 007.
This is excellent advice. The work of taking innovations off the paper, out of the lab and into the real world requires the successful penetration of early markets. In these early days, Visionaries are crucial to the innovation effort because they perform critical jobs for which they are uniquely equipped.
But why do so many innovation initiatives stall in the chasm, even with the support of the Early Adopter?
This is a critical question for our industry. See Post 051 (positing that the true bottleneck in legal innovation is a commercialization gap). The latest Altman Weil survey of law firm leaders reports that 38.3% of firms are actively engaged in creating special projects to test innovative ideas or methods – down from 50.4% in 2017. While the decline is concentrated in smaller firms, the dip in experimentation suggests that the chasm threatens to dampen the overall pace of innovation in legal markets.
If you hope to scale innovation beyond experiments in the lab, understanding the psychographic (the “why”) and functional (the “how”) dynamics around the chasm is a must. An examination of the often fraught relationship between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority who bookend the chasm is particularly instructive.
Simply put, the chasm exists because the buying criteria and performance expectations of these two groups are so dramatically different. These very differences form the crux of why Early Adopters make poor reference clients for the Early Majority.
The perpetual tension between Visionary Early Adopters and the Pragmatist Early Majority stems from many dispositional differences, but there is one factor that we must always keep in mind. Despite the best of intentions and the best of efforts, the Visionaries’ bets do not always pay off. The hoped-for “order of magnitude” returns fail to materialize, and the new idea, product or service is found insufficient to catapult the innovation sponsor ahead of the competition.
In these unfortunate instances, it is often a Pragmatist, not the Visionary, who sounds a quiet death knell for the innovation experiment.
3. Pragmatists Hold the Keys to the Mainstream Markets
When David Cambria, the Director of Global Legal Operations at ADM, and Jeff Carr, the General Counsel of Univar, talk of “massive passive resistance,” or MPR, they are describing the attitudes of mainstream markets.
No single person or segment among the Early Majority, Late Majority, or Laggards holds nearly as much influence or prestige as the Techies or Visionaries who comprise the early markets. All the same, the mainstream markets derive massive power from massive numbers – and their passivity actually makes them more intractable. They are hard to understand because they are not as vocal or as distinctive as the early markets, and markets that are not well understood are hard to penetrate. Unfortunately, the failure to understand 85% of the target audience usually portends a slow but certain death for any new process, product or service.
Techies and Visionaries are united in their continual quest for new things, but mainstream markets are equally unified in the opposite direction. The vast majority of B2B buyers do not care for novelty. Rather, mainstream markets generally seek proven, complete solutions to known problems. Lack of clarity on either side of the problem-solution equation usually translates to substantial costs to educate the market. Within each organization, change agents also must contend with the costly battle against legacy infrastructure and cultural antibodies reinforcing the status quo.
Early Majority / “Pragmatists”
Pragmatists tend to gravitate toward roles of responsibility and stewardship in sizable corporations and in professional communities. Hence, Pragmatists are often the de facto keepers of the core company budget as well as industry standards and best practices.
According to Moore, the “Fortune 2000 IT community, as a group, is led by people who are largely pragmatist in orientation” (p 55). We can easily envision how this type would dominate positions of authority across legal functions of the same companies, and the description fits reasonably well for practice group or industry group leadership roles across NLJ 500 law firms.
An Advanced Exercise in Empathy
As a buyer group, Pragmatists are practical, stringent and value-conscious for entirely rational and comprehensible reasons. Early markets opt into their innovation roles, but Pragmatists have their responsibilities thrust upon them. Pragmatists are the ones usually held internally accountable for building, integrating, testing, debugging, and maintaining a new reality but at realistic levels of cost and effort – all while supporting their entire organization as it is nudged and prodded through all the unpleasantness of learning a new way to work.
For the would-be entrepreneur or intrapreneur, the skeptical demands of Pragmatists throw cold water on all the dreams nurtured by early market success. For that reason alone, an “extended exercise in commercial empathy” for this group’s point of view can feel very taxing. We often find it easier to vilify Pragmatists as unimaginative, plodding, and ornery – for the simple reason that they stand towering like an impassable mountain range between us and all our innovation dreams.
(For an illuminating glimpse at the world through the viewpoint of a Pragmatist, set aside some time to at least skim through the narrative vignettes in “What is Code?” – an award-winning 38,000-word showpiece on Bloomberg Businessweek.)
Innovations Start Life As Hypotheses, and Hypotheses Need Testing
Visionaries craft many scenarios about what the future might look like, but it is the Pragmatists who ultimately decide what the future actually will be. Pragmatists derive this considerable power not from glamorous positioning and self-promotion, but rather from the distinctly unglamorous work of safeguarding their organizations against catastrophic system failures and irresponsible budget leakages.
Along the way, Pragmatists provide an invaluable service not only to their own organizations but also to the innovation teams who listen with the intent to understand. Visionaries deal in the murky realm of intuition and hunches, but Pragmatists are the keepers of cold hard truth. And cold hard truth is what we need when we tackle one thorny question after another to validate the Visionary’s plausible theories:
- Are we addressing a business problem that matters?
- Does this problem matter to a market of sufficient size?
- Have we built a complete product that solves enough of the problem?
- Does our offering solve the problem more effectively than any other available option?
- Can we deliver sufficient business value to justify not only our asking price but the total cost of adoption and use?
- Does our offering actually work reliably and for real users in the real world?
Asking and answering these questions in an evidence-based manner demands extraordinary emotional discipline. The interest of early markets, no matter how exciting, is necessary but insufficient proof. The true test of market viability is forged through the exacting requirements of Pragmatists.
Prior to crossing the chasm, the Pragmatist’s buying requirements present material barriers to further diffusion:
- insistence on a whole product solution
- reliance on peer references from other Pragmatists
- penchant for backing the market-leading solution
- attention to practical deployment levers (e.g. infrastructure compatibility)
However, the innovation teams able to meet these demands find themselves well positioned to capture market share quickly. And the innovations that survive these trials are often imbued with an invaluable attribute of mainstream success: scalability. Lastly, because Pragmatist are fiercely loyal once won, the innovation team can expect to enjoy a highly defensible competitive position.
4. Even In A World of No, There Are Lessons To Be Had
The Late Majority and Laggards do not feature as prominently in our narrative. Legal innovation is not yet mature enough to grapple seriously with the market extension opportunities offered by these adopter types, who are generally resistant to trying new things.
Still, we append a few remarks. Despite the best efforts of innovation teams to convert each of the adopter types in the prescribed order, the messy and chaotic nature of legal markets all but guarantees that we will encounter all adopter types in our quest for market entry.
Late Majority / “Conservatives”
Risk aversion, price sensitivity, and tendency to follow rather than lead are the identifying characteristics of Conservatives. Whereas Pragmatists seek demonstrable gain in a defensible cost-benefit analysis, Conservatives in legal ecosystems are more likely seek minimal pain in their individual buyer and user experiences. This has the benefit of forcing us to focus on convenience factors such as ease of purchase and use as well as performance reliability.
Conservative buyers reward innovation teams for attention to human factors, optimized product design, and streamlined sales operations. However, none of this matters without the requisite social proof and peer pressure from Pragmatists and other Conservatives. For this reason, premature focus on these factors generally bodes ill for innovation teams, particularly in B2B markets. Making something more usable before verifying that it is actually useful to a sufficient number of paying customers is usually an expensive exercise.
Laggards / “Skeptics”
Skeptics are as likely as not to avoid adoption to the bitter end. As hostile as Skeptics may be to any innovation endeavor, engaging them in good faith whenever they are encountered can deliver at least one important benefit.
Skeptics tend to draw attention to specific gaps between product promises and actual performance. (This rarely feels beneficial or benign to innovation teams grappling with concept models and prototype.) Still, innovation teams who are open to engaging with this challenging segment gain precious opportunities to achieve greater user understanding, client empathy & client orientation. Particularly if the spotlighted performance gaps lead to specific insights about customer failures – e.g. critical breakdowns in business processes or the user journey – we can gain a much deeper understanding of the customer’s work context, business problems and use constraints.
5. Innovation Is Really Hard
All of this is much easier said than done. It is an inordinate amount of work and most of it cannot be done sitting at a desk. If we intend to put a dent in the universe, we cannot expect to coddle our creations in a pristine but sterile lab. Instead, we have to venture out into the messy and chaotic world that we hope to change.
Effectuating meaningful change is also hard because it demands, early and often, productive collisions with many people who will disagree with us. That work involves lots (and lots and lots) of dismissal, criticism and outright rejection.
To survive this bruising onslaught, innovators and change agents need to develop not only relevant expertise and skill sets but also habits of mind. Chief among these is a habit of thinking deeply and constructively about the viewpoint of the customer.
Much like a fledgling magician without an audience, an innovator without a customer is just another person with a quirky hobby.