How to Accelerate the Adoption of New Products and Innovations

adoption of innovations

Hint: It’s not by adding new features

Many people believe that breakthrough innovations are automatically accepted and widely adopted throughout society. But that assumption is flawed. Whereas the systems for enabling, formalizing and managing the innovation process seem to be improving, the fact remains that more than 90% of all new products and innovations fail, even if they provide obvious advantages. The good news is the adoption of innovations and technologies [that are truly meaningful] can be systematically accelerated using a framework of risk reduction that is based on the principles of neuroscience.

Without us knowing it, our amygdala – the “threat detector” and one of the oldest and more primitive parts of the brain – is constantly scanning our environment to assess our level of safety and alert us to any signs of trouble. It’s a basic survival mechanism with the goal of protecting us and keeping us safe. It was especially useful in prehistoric times when the threat of physical danger was omnipresent. But the amygdala can bypass the prefrontal cortex (the more newly-evolved part of our brain) and rapidly alert the body to danger.

Subconsciously, we see innovation as noxious and disruptive, and this bias can potentially discourage us from adopting a new product or trying an innovative new method. The reasons for this implicit bias against innovation can be traced to the fundamentally disruptive nature of novel and original creations. Innovation means change, without the certainty of desirable results.

People have an implicit belief the status quo is safe. And anyone invested in the status quo has plenty of incentive not to change. For example, novel ideas have almost no upside for a middle manager. The goal of middle managers is to meet the metrics of an existing paradigm.

The key finding of this study is that risk (or lack of safety) is in the eyes of the beholder. What might be perceived as high risk to some people is seen as low risk to others. And the greatest ambiguity comes from our discovery that an individual’s perception of risk can vary widely from one innovation to another.

In other words, a person can be the first on her block to buy an electric car, and at the same time the last to accept a COVID vaccination. Within the same person, EVs can be perceived as low risk and vaccinations can be perceived as high risk, and there is no method for predicting how someone will evaluate an innovation. The perception of risk is “innovation-specific.”

Perceived Risk Governs the Adoption of Innovations

Every new technology or innovation that is presented as a step forward carries a unique amount of perceived risk, which is determined by the organization or the end user. Some innovations are perceived as low risk by a majority of people, while others are seen as extremely risky by everyone except for a few high-stakes risk takers. This creates an environment of unpredictability for those developing anything new because each person will assign a different amount (or type) of risk to each new innovation they encounter.

The potential risks associated with adopting a new innovation can be long and varied. Our recent polling of mid-level managers identified the following risks as most prevalent:

  • financial loss
  • performance loss
  • loss of respect (social loss)
  • loss of time
  • loss of privacy
Adoption of Innovations

Yet nine out of ten vendors are doing nothing to address these specific fears, which explains the 90% failure rate of new products. In essence, they are hoping that the promised value of their innovation will be enough to overcome the fear-based resistance that prevents adoption.

Given innovation’s critical importance to sustained business growth, that is a risky strategy. Leading innovators and entrepreneurial organizations not only recognize the role that risk plays but also use a structured method of reducing the perceived risk of an innovation that involves the constant reinvention of the product.

To understand what a risk-reduction strategy entails, we analyzed the characteristics and attributes of over 50 breakthrough innovations that have achieved full, mainstream adoption, and identified the similarities in the elements that are directly related to reducing the perception of risk.

We found that: 1) the harmonious fit an innovation has with current methods, 2) the innovator’s dedication to the end-user’s market, and 3) the existence of independent systems of support, all correlate highly with the overall acceptance and success of the innovation.

At the same time, the perception of risk increases as the innovation or product matures. However, there are multiple methods that are proven to reduce the perception of risk and these methods can have an additive effect throughout the adoption lifecycle.

How do people measure risk?

Risk perception is a complex and personal topic — what prompts a person to adopt something new can motivate others to avoid it at all cost. In aggregate, however, our research shows that three types [categories] of risk prevent people from adopting an innovation in almost all cases: loss of prior progress or existing advantage, relying on an unproven vendor, and the absence of independent peer-level support. These risk factors act as barriers to the adoption of innovations in every type of industry or market, where the innovation is classified as “discontinuous” — meaning it is expensive or complex, or it requires a change in workflow and/or new learning.

We were fascinated to discover when studying potential buyers of electric cars that loss of established-prior progress emerged as the biggest source of risk, being 4 times more prevalent than other sources. Such worries can have severe consequences. When we believe our decisions can put our current freedom of mobility at risk, loss aversion takes the steering wheel and drives us to stay with our current method. This results in buyers being reluctant to gamble their transportation habits on an innovation.

All successful mainstream innovations have attributes that alleviate these loss-based concerns by making the innovation fully compatible and familiar with existing methods and workflows.

For example, Thomas Edison had an expert understanding of both innovation adoption and methods for overcoming the fear of loss when he introduced the electric lightbulb. Recognizing that many commercial and residential landowners in New York had invested considerable capital in gas infrastructure to light their buildings, Edison chose to run his first electrical wires through existing gas lines, fitting directly into the system people had already invested in. And Edison’s strategy of adapting his technology to systems people already had in place, led to the accelerated acceptance and adoption of the electric lightbulb.

Twelve ways to lower perceived risk

Leaders looking to improve their company’s new-product success can start by asking themselves the 12 questions that customers routinely ask before adopting a new innovation:

  1. Are you configuring your technology so that it feels familiar to the end user and is compatible with their current systems and methods?
  2. Do you provide everything that is needed by the customer with no missing pieces?
  3. In what ways do you allow a customer to try your innovation before buying it?
  4. Can a customer buy your technology or product from someone they already know and trust?
  5. Do you adhere to industry standards that similar vendors work to support?
  6. Are complementary products, tools and services offered by familiar companies?
  7. Are recognized companies or organizations supporting your new innovation through sponsorship or partnership?
  8. Do you contribute to the evolution and success of the market category you’re in?
  9. Are you facilitating visible or word-of-mouth references from people the customer knows and trusts?
  10. Do you help enable the exchange of unbiased information through user-controlled communication channels?
  11. Are you providing independent safeguards that protect the end-user’s privacy and deliver configurable security measures?
  12. Have you created a long-term support infrastructure that is completely independent?
The second-biggest source of human resistance to innovation is the uncertainty surrounding the long-term viability of the vendor or supplier.

Fear that is based in uncertainty and loss of control trigger the ambiguity effect, a cognitive bias that leads us to avoid options with uncertain outcomes. Buyers and end users seeking reassurance often look for signs of the vendor’s commitment to and investment in the market segment where the innovation is applied. Sponsorship by a trusted institution carries a significant amount of risk reduction and credibility. To allay their fear of uncertainty, some vendors focus on factors such as prestige, image and reputation—a risky approach, particularly with discontinuous innovations.

The fear of becoming a technology orphan plagues mainstream buyers much more than it does early adopters. The vast majority of buyers don’t want to discover their supplier has gone out of business, and they are now stuck with products that no one will support. They look for compatible products that are fully tested, adhere to industry standards, and are used by others they know in their industry. Early adopters on the other hand are attracted by high-risk, high-reward projects.

The absence of peer-level support, the third persistent barrier to the adoption of innovations, is a well-known and studied dynamic. Group conformity, social cohesion and tribalism are basic survival instincts, but these tendencies consistently prevent people from adopting new things. Social norms shape a person’s sense of what is possible, discouraging them from adopting new methods that break with convention. This conformity bias leads us to follow our peers, even if it means maintaining the status quo and missing opportunities for advancement.

As with the other two primary sources of perceived risk, business leaders managing the commercialization of a new product or innovation are much more successful at achieving mainstream adoption if they build an ecosystem of independent community and support. People are afraid of the unknown. And there is safety in numbers.

Left unchecked, these and other sources of perceived risk will lead to failed innovation, wasted resources and a loss of competitive advantage. And companies that continuously reinvent their products and services, so they become a better fit with the risk-averse nature of the mainstream market will achieve lasting market leadership (see sidebar, “Twelve ways to move past fear”).

human need for safety