Strategy, PM, and the Diffusion Innovation Theory Model

Innovation and new ideas are great – but how do you get the word out? This is a challenge, especially for implementing innovation strategies. This post examines a widely held theory about how innovations are absorbed and accepted by people, and the implications for implementing strategy.

Diffusion Innovation Theory Model

Diffusion of innovation theory is about how an idea, product, or message disseminates, or diffuses, through a target community, population, or social system. The diffusion innovation theory model was developed by in 1962 by E. M. Rogers.

The following ‘diffusion of innovation curve’ shows the distribution of people and the five social groupings that they belong to, according to the theory. The graph shows that most eventual adopters fall in the middle, part of the early and late majorities.

diffusion innovation theory model


Diffusion innovation theory states that innovations are adopted into a population in distinct phases, characterized by distinct attributes of the adopters. Here’s a list of these attributes, or characteristics, in progressive order of adoption, as shown in the diffusion of innovation curve above.

  1. Innovators – This is the unique group of people who are willing to try almost anything, anytime. They are innovative by nature, are not afraid to take risks, and are very adaptable to rolling up their sleeves to make something work. They are unencumbered by attachment to existing or old ways of doing things.
  2. Early Adopters – These tend to be leaders who are instinctively looking ahead and recognize the need to change. They are open to ideas, and generally want to be shown how to implement them. It is beneficial to gain and leverage the experience with the Innovators group for approaching the Early Adopters.
  3. Early Majority – This group is looking for evidence that the innovation in fact works. They don’t require large numbers…but they are ready to move when they see some convincing proof. They become convinced that someone has come before them and had success with the innovation.
  4. Late Majority – This group is generally resistant to change and needs more than evidence that the innovation will work. They need the proof of numbers – that people are flocking to the innovation. Once they are awakened by the fact that large numbers of people have adopted it successfully, they will follow.
  5. Laggards – This is the slowest and last group to adopt an innovation. They are tied to old ways, whether by tradition or a strong propensity to resist, and may never become adopters. Time, consistent evidence and persuasion, and sometimes even force or requirement, are the only ways to make them adopt the innovation.

The significance of dividing potential adopters of an innovation into these groups is that adoption happens in phases, and messaging to potential adopters needs to change with each phase.

Diffusion Innovations Theory, Networks, and Change

The diffusion innovation theory model plays out in many ways and in many realms. Here are just a few examples.

  • Politics – Communications are disseminated very intentionally through channels that allow for the most efficient and effective receipt of the messaging.
  • Community Organizations – Activities, missions, and involvement are communicated out to carve out a contributing niche in the community.
  • Job Market – Recruitment efforts try to follow a path of getting the word out that spreads the message to awaken interest in the target groups of people.
  • Financial Markets – Sophisticated industry structures are in place to disseminate – and sometimes withhold – investment and financial information.
  • Marketing – New products find their way through the target community, gathering the momentum of proof and numbers as the information flows.

The last example, marketing, is most closely aligned to the diffusion innovation theory model. It involves marketing something new and innovative. An application, or extension, of the diffusion innovation theory model in marketing was brought forth in the particularly insightful book, Crossing the Chasm, by Geoffrey A. Moore.

Moore uses the same breakdown of the five adopters and five phase life cycle. The difference is that he points out, in reality, the existence of a ‘chasm’ between Early Adopters and Early Majority. His idea is that it is a giant leap to go from selling to people willing to try anything to selling to more conservative, follow the crowd majority. Often companies fail in their marketing efforts to ‘cross the chasm’ from the Innovators and Early Adopters to the Early Majority because it can take extensive work to realign the organization around the new messaging required.

Strategy and Diffusion of Innovation Theory

Diffusion of the ideas of innovation poses a challenge in identifying the best strategy. Like the chasm of transition between Early Adopters and Early Majority exposed in Crossing the Chasm, there are chasms to some degree in each crossing to a different and unique group of adopters.

There are some good strategic tools for overcoming these execution obstacles. Here are four notable tools or strategic frameworks for dealing with these obstacles.

  1. Network effects can help accelerate and even control the dissemination to the right groups in a natural way.
  2. The McKinsey 7S framework model can help ensure that there is alignment across all organizational and stakeholder groupings.
  3. Gap analysis can help identify the specific obstacles in the way of getting from point A to point B.
  4. The Nadler Tushman Congruence Model can expose incongruities in the organization, where there may have been alignment previously, but in the addressing the new target adopters their is incongruity.

Strategically, the idea is to have a clear customer and market focus, to understand clearly the messaging that needs to get to the current group of adopters, and then to look back at the organization and make sure the pieces are in place to support that.

Project Management and Diffusion of Innovation

Diffusion of innovation manifests itself a little differently across the spectrum of portfolio, program, and project management.

  • Portfolio Management – Could grouping projects based on target audience – target group of adopters – be a breakdown worth considering? If the portfolio includes a lot of innovation projects, it seems this would be important. Note that internal to a company, project stakeholders may also have characteristics similar to adopters of innovations. In introducing change, what needs to happen, and when, to implement that change?
  • Program Management – Programs, defined in large part by a strategic focus, need to be cognizant of the process of change acceptance within and outside the organization. Whatever it is that needs to change, it will do so in part based on a natural timetable based on diffusion of the change, or innovation, throughout the organization or external stakeholders – possibly mirroring the diffusion of innovation adopter groupings.
  • Project Management – Project managers also can benefit from understanding differences among project stakeholders based on the type of adopter they might be. Some people are eager for change, some resistant, and some are waiting to follow the lead once they see progress. Whether identifying them with the five levels of adopters of diffusion innovation theory, or some customized offshoot, it is important to think through the acceptance process.


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It is useful for portfolio, program, and project managers to consider timing of adopter acceptance – even if the adopter breakdown does not map exactly to the structure of the diffusion innovation theory model.

Putting Diffusion Innovation Concepts to Work

Consider how you might break down the adopters of your project work. Do they fit the pattern of the Diffusion Innovation Theory Model, or some other unique breakdown?

2 thoughts on “Strategy, PM, and the Diffusion Innovation Theory Model”

  1. Thanks for the refresher on the Diffusion Innovation theory. I feel that when I was younger, I enjoyed being an early adopter and finding the latest things that would simplify or enhance my work / life (I even worked for a dotcom startup). Gradually I found that I was moving towards the right of the curve, as the newer products didn’t have a big enough draw to be the guinea pig as kinks were worked out. I agree that there is a big chasm between early adopters / early majority — navigating this well is the difference between big success or fizzling out. 

    • Aly, thank you for your interesting reply!  It seems that maybe younger people have more of a propensity to be early adopters?  I can see that.  Perhaps we have less to lose, and more to gain.  What about companies?  Are there certain kinds of companies that, in a B2B relationship, would have greater propensity for early adoption?

      Thanks again.


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