The Adoption Curve and Climate Change

Early adopters of new technologies are often frustrated by the lack of urgency displayed by late adopters. To those that join the choir early, it’s an obvious choice — there is no rational reason to not join the choir. Perhaps they had a reason to not join earlier, but at some point they picked up the songbook, walked up the aisle and started singing. This is true of adopting better climate change technologies and behaviors. Many people see the benefit, many more don’t. Since it’s become politicized, climate change has become harder and harder to talk about.

Proponents of change in all areas are similar: they have many reasons to do so and find those reasons sooner than most others. What the choir often fails to understand is that people resistant to change have many reasons of their own to not do so. An effective change agent will find those reasons, respect them and find ways to work with or around them. Change management is the term for this pursuit in an organization. It has a well-formed set of principles to guide organizations through such changes. That’s for another time though. The purpose of this article is to organize people into groups to highlight their respective mindsets, and provide one foundational starting point.

Segmenting for Clarity

The technology adoption curve is a brilliant model that illustrates five general divisions of human behavior in relation to change. This adoption curve overview on Wikipedia is a good reference. In summary, people fall into one of  five main groups on the adoption curve:

Innovators tend to be more adventurous and excited to try new things. Sometimes they’ll even do this at the risk of spending more money or some disruption to their life. Their motivation is the excitement of something new – perhaps even bragging rights. And then sometimes there’s the potential for some actual benefits like increased efficiency, profit, lifestyle, etc.

Early Adopters by definition find a reason to change earlier than most. Whether it’s out of desire for personal gain, benefit to a larger group, or a long range vision, there’s something to it that makes the change justifiable. They enjoy a challenge if it makes sense.

Early Majority tend to be somewhat more resistant to change; they prefer to keep things the same if they are working. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This cohort tends to place a higher value on things that are already in place, and sometimes, that previous generations have valued. It’s a view of life that has respect for the past. If it was good for our past selves or our elders, it’s good enough for us.

Late Majority has the same vibe as Early Majority, but are less socially active, so when the Early Majority moves forward, this group is less likely to keep up. They really like things to stay the same . As defined in the original research cited on Wikipedia, these folks tend to be older. Age also tends to be a common hurdle to making a change. As older people usually have less income and mobility, they may also have legitimate financial and logistical reasons for resisting change.

Laggards are the last class of people to make a change. They’ll only do so when they have no other option. This class includes people that hold onto technologies until they simply stop working. My own mother refuses to get a computer. She only got a smart phone when the flip phones were no longer available from her carrier – and she has no intention of learning how to use it apart from placing phone calls.

Variable Assignments

The segment that a person falls into may vary depending on the technology introduced, who introduces it to them, and how the introduction is made. For example, if someone is interested in large televisions and a newer, high-resolution TV comes out, it might be an instant purchase for them. That same person might not be so instantly interested in climate friendly changes such as LED light bulbs or a carpooling opportunity.

To the extent that using a new technology is a matter of choice (until it becomes a critical necessity), it stands to reason that this curve also applies to behavioral changes – things such as driving less, putting on a sweater for warmth, using a fan for cooling, or planting a tree for more shade.

Where to Start? Respect

Simply put: if someone doesn’t share your values, they won’t be motivated by your values. When you ask them to do something based on your values, the only motivation they would possibly have is a social bond. But with our current cultural divides, that’s a very unlikely outcome. Conversely, when you offer a benefit to someone who can use it, it has a way of cutting past the tensions and building a relationship. Discussing that benefit at the time of need is ideal.

With this outline of demographics in place, we can be more aware of and respectful to the people we are asking to change. For those of us who are in the lead pushing for the change, we cannot afford to lose the respect of people we are asking to make that change. In fact, with cultural divides growing, it’s not a stretch to say that we already have strong headwinds to overcome. Rather, we are at a point where we actually need to gain that respect before we can expect to go any further.

Climate Change Agents

My teenage son asked me the other day: how do you change someone’s mind? The easiest pathway is to introduce them to an idea and its merits. Hopefully they’ll see the benefit and want to change on their own. But if they don’t see the benefit, there’s some work to do. A change agent’s job is to find a personal reason why it would make sense for someone to change.

In the effort to move humanity into a sustainable posture, the Innovators and Early Adopters have already joined the choir. The next big segment is the Early Majority. There are so many options and incentives available to promote sustainable actions. Of course, there are lots of things being done by detractors to try to impede the same. Fortunately, there are many real benefits to making changes. It is imperative that proponents share clearly what those benefits are with opponents.

If we want to promote change in the world, we can’t be lazy and expect it to happen just because we want it to and we argue for it. We need to put in the work to connect the benefits to the people. That’s not an argument, but a conversation backed by respect for the other party, and research into their needs. That’s how we achieve the outcomes that are best for us all. Because to most of us, it’s becoming more clear every day that we need more adopters – early or not –  before it’s too late to make a difference.