The Danger of the "Early Adopter" Myth




Peter de Jager is a provocative Speaker, Writer and Consultant. His primary focus in on how we manage change, technology and the future.

In addition to speaking at conferences worldwide, he also writes monthly columns for CIO Magazine and Computerworld Canada.

His goal is always to question what we think is so, and in so doing perhaps open up new opportunities.

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When we make assumptions about what a term means, we end up applying solutions with no relationship to reality. The term "Early Adopter" has lost all meaning in the field of Change Management and is causing more problems than it solves. That's a pity, because it, and the terms surrounding it, arose from good research and when used properly can aid in our understanding of the Change Process. 

Everett Rogers, in his classic tome, "Diffusion of Innovations" examined the "adoption levels over time" curves of hundreds of different innovations. He noticed they were mostly the standard Bell curve. He then, for the sake of discussion, identified different sections of this curve.

The left most 2.5% of the curve he labeled as "Innovators". 

The next 13.5% were tagged as "Early Adopters".

The left of centre 34% were the "Early Majority"

The right of centre 34% are the "Late Majority" followed by the last 16%, whom he saddled with the term, "Laggards"

Once he had these categories, he examined the people residing in them to see if he could identify common denominators beyond their location on the curve. For example: He observed that Early Adopters were perceived as opinion leaders of the community with respect to that change/innovation.

It's important to realize these categories had a purely statistical meaning. The Early and Late majorities make up the core 68% of the curve as defined by the 1st standard deviation. The Early Adopters are the left portion of the 2nd standard deviation. In other words, "Early Adopter" as originally intended, is purely a mathematical definition based on the adoption curve for a particular innovation1 

It's also necessary to note that this adoption curve only exists after a population has adopted a technology2. 

And finally, Adoption Curves do not exist outside the social dynamics surrounding a specific innovation3. ie. The same population will generate different adoption curves, if any, for a different change/innovation.

If we lose sight of these three points, we end up abusing everything that Diffusion Theory can teach us. 

1) The statement "She is an Early Adopter" is meaningless until associated with a specific change or innovation.

I owned a PC in 1979, which defines me at least as an Early Adopter. However, I have only just recently (July 2004) acquired a cell phone, which makes me a Laggard of the highest order. 

The point is -- there is no contradiction here. With respect to PCs I was an Early Adopter and with respect to Cell Phones I am a Laggard. No contradiction exists if we use the terms properly. 

Lesson: People do not fall into one Change Adoption Category; they drift from category to category depending on the specific change/innovation.

2) The statement "13.5% of the general population are Early Adopters" is absolutely, totally, incorrect. 

This makes two related and dangerous assumptions. 
           a. It assumes that the complete Adoption Curve will exist for any change..
           b. It assumes 13.5% of us will embrace any change,

Evidence of the incorrectness of this statement is found in two casual observations;
          a) At the height of the Hula Hoop craze, not everyone was hula-hooping.
          b) Not even 2.5% of the population have bought a Segway.

Lesson: The adoption terms are accurate only in hindsight; they tell you nothing about how a population might respond to a change/innovation.

"Early Adopter" and the other descriptors Rogers used to sub-divide the Adoption Curve are post facto definitions. They are applicable only after the population in question has embraced a change/innovation. Just because people take to a change/innovation before others does not mean they are "opinion leaders", that is only true if everyone else has followed their lead. Until this happens they are merely "first to adopt" and if no-one else follows them, then a more correct label might be "Gullible" and not "Early Adopter".

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2005, Peter de Jager Peter is passionate about change, how it affects both individuals and organizations and allows them to grow and prosper. To contact him, and host internal seminars on Change Management visit

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