The Law of Diffusion of Innovation

Written by Nevin Decroo on May 24, 2023

Innovation is an exciting concept that captivates our imagination, sparking thoughts of endless possibilities and the ability to bring those possibilities to life. However, amidst this excitement, we often overlook the process by which innovations spread throughout society.

Recently, I stumbled upon an intriguing idea called the Law of Diffusion of Innovation. While its empirical foundation remains somewhat unclear, it serves as a valuable tool for gaining insights into the dynamics of innovation. Let’s go over innovation and how it diffuses and talk about what this means for your endeavors.

I must warn you: this post will include just a bit of info you probably recognize from your high school statistics class. Don’t worry though, today it’ll be painless. 🙂

What the Law of Diffusion of Innovation Says

Remember the bell curve from stats class? Also known as a Normal distribution, it states that most people are close to the center of a given distribution, and the concentration thins as you move further away in either direction.

To give numerical context, 68% of a population will exist within a standard deviation of the mean, 95% within two, and nearly everybody within three. And you can think of a standard deviation as a measure of data spread.

As far as innovation goes, a population is divided into a few categories:

  • Innovators
  • Early adopters
  • Early majority
  • Late majority
  • Laggards

The way they’re distributed is as follows:

In this case, the distribution centers around time to adopt an innovation. For a product to be successful, it needs to stick around long enough to capture the arc of the curve while also reaching people in the process.

Simon Sinek describes the concept here.

Interpreting the Law

The people on the left side of the curve are innovation enthusiasts and will be quick to adopt new technologies. Think of that friend of yours that has every new technology imaginable and pre-orders each product release.

On the flip side, the people on the far right lag behind and won’t adopt new innovations until they’re forced to. These people are fraught with outdated tech, and they like it that way.

The people in the middle, however, represent the critical mass needed for an innovation to be successful and spread.

While there will be eager folks ready to try something new, there will be a need to transcend the early adopters and also get the early and late majorities on board. Doing so requires “crossing the chasm.”

In the business world, this means you need to lead with a purpose. Innovating for innovation’s sake isn’t going to get you anywhere. But building your brand with a clear purpose to improve people’s lives in some capacity, communicating this, and then acting accordingly will propel you across the chasm.

Closing The Innovation Chasm

Innovation isn’t linear and it can be hard to get buy-in for a new product. An understanding of what goes on behind the scenes gives you a leg up though.

Remember a few key points:

  • Early adopters are ever-present and aren’t necessarily a sign that an innovation will stick
  • Some people lag behind and refuse to take part in innovation, so it’s not worth trying to get everybody on board
  • Lead with a purpose at scale to get greater buy-in, cross the chasm, and find innovation success

Innovation can seem like an amorphous thing. But just like anything else, it too can be analyzed and broken down in useful ways. The Law of Diffusion of Innovation is a helpful road map to use as you work toward changing the world.