All Successful Innovations Have
Three Elements in Common

Perception of Low Risk



Seeing the world from the customer’s point of view, and creating a product that fits them so well, that it sells itself.



Performing consistently well, in a trustworthy manner, to demonstrate the characteristics of an ideal partner.



An independent infrastructure that allows people to interact with others they relate to, which increases confidence and reduces risk

All 3 Elements Lower the Perception of Risk

Many great innovations, social movements and new technologies take decades to achieve mainstream or mass-market adoption, primarily because of a failure to lower the perception of risk. And the underlying reason for the lack of innovation adoption is a vast majority of people don’t want the latest and greatest…of anything. The mainstream population primarily wants low risk, evolutionary progress and familiarity.

Here are five examples of innovations that evolved over time to lower the perception of risk. All of these innovations achieved widespread adoption in the mainstream because of they have a common set of risk-lowering attributes that allow people to feel safe:

  • The electric lightbulb
  • Vermont’s COVID vaccination program
  • Digital photography
  • Regional solar power
  • The personal computer
Lower the Perception of Risk
1. Affinity
  • Ubiquitous appearance and operation
  • Use of existing infrastructure for wiring
  • Familiar form factor yet more pleasant
2. Reliability
  • Much safer and more reliable than gas
  • Visible references
  • Credible endorsements
3. Assurance
  • Centralized electricity generation
  • Interconnected transmission grid
  • Underground conduit for safety

The Electric Lightbulb

One of the best examples of the low risk recipe is Thomas Edison’s strategy of adapting his invention to systems people were familiar with, and minimizing disruption to people’s lives. Together this led to accelerated acceptance and adoption of the electric lightbulb.

Since gas lamps were the dominant method of indoor lighting, Edison designed his electric lights to look and operate almost identically. His initial electric lights provided 13 watts of light, almost the same as the 12-watt gas lamps he wanted to replace.

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 already understood for the delivery of light.

Edison also understood that the light bulb was merely a discrete device. And a system of electric power generation and transmission would be required to make it truly useful. Edison’s Pearl Street Station provided a complete electric lighting, generation and distribution system that ensured the safe, reliable delivery of electricity at competitive prices.

In order to ensure Safety in Numbers, Edison selected financial institutions in lower Manhattan to demonstrate electric lighting technology to the metro population living across the Hudson River in New Jersey. Because financial organizations were seen as a credible source of innovative new products, these “visual references” acted as an endorsement of electric power and light.

Vermont's COVID
Vaccination Program

The adoption of a healthcare innovation — such as a vaccine to prevent the spread of COVID — requires people to make medical decisions based on individual risk-benefit analysis. In this example you can see that the state of Vermont took specific steps to achieve the perception of low risk through the creation of a program called “Keeping You Safe.”

Lower the Perception of Risk

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “the nation has witnessed what is probably the most successful population-wide mass vaccination campaign in the nation’s history.” And Vermont’s historic success is the result of designing a vaccination program that lowered the perception of risk for all residents.

Vermont’s vaccine program incorporated many of the risk-reduction methods that are important to a mainstream population: it was sponsored by an unbiased organization that is dedicated to clear communication (NPR), all vaccines were administered in familiar locations and settings, the alternative vaccines that were offered have the same underlying biological structure, and the use of town hall meetings and community-centered gatherings allowed citizens to discuss their concerns with people they relate to and trust.

1. Affinity

  • Communication through trusted channels such as: first responders, immigrant aid groups and respected local pharmacists
  • Value alignment based on personal safety
  • One-stop source for vaccination information and consistent guidance (state health agency)
  • Visible results available in some communities
  • Excellent compatibility; no mass vaccination sites; vaccine delivered to people at: general stores, gas stations, car races and local events
  • Vaccinators were culturally competent (in 10 different languages) and appropriate for the setting

2. Reliability

  • Managed by the Vermont Agency of Human Services
  • Brand awareness built through 145 briefings regarding strategy, plans and status
  • Market vision called “Keeping You Safe”
  • Partnerships with rural emergency medicine organizations

3. Assurance

  • Standard vaccine provided (Messenger RNA)
  • HIPPA regulations provided security and privacy
  • Vaccination program sponsored by Vermont Radio (NPR)
  • Complimentary products included additional healthcare services
  • Early adopters presented their experience to late adopters at community meetings
  • Town hall meetings organized by NPR enabled peer-to-peer interaction
Typical pattern of technology adoption
1. Affinity
  • Similar appearance and operation
  • Use of known storage standard
  • Use of proven, familiar technology
2. Reliability
  • History as high-quality supplier
3. Assurance
  • Use of proven, familiar technology
  • Recognized market leader
  • Large selection of floppy disks
  • Compatible with industry standard

Digital Photography

Sony achieved the perception of low risk primarily by taking advantage of digital photography’s lack of standards.

Despite being more expensive, clunkier, and less capable (it didn’t produce the sharpest pictures) the Sony Mavica was the top-selling digital camera in the U.S. While competitors like Casio were all concentrating on technical performance like picture resolution, Sony focused on avoiding features that force a customer to change. Instead they emphasized familiarity, allowing mainstream buyers to feel safe.

Manufacturers of digital cameras like Cannon, Fuji and Casio thought buyers would want advanced features like better resolution and more storage. But Sony took advantage of the industry’s lack of standards (which are a proven way to lower the perception of risk) and designed the Mavica to work with a standard storage device, the floppy disk. They also made the Mavica extremely easy to use. The result? Despite higher price and less functionality, the Sony Mavica was the market leader in its category with 41% market share.

Wall Street Journal Article

Regional Solar Power

The challenge with clean-energy market transformation is getting people who are primarily risk averse to adopt a new innovation. The mainstream population believes that most new technologies are unproven and risky. However in this example, a properly designed risk-reduction strategy overcame adopter hesitancy and accelerated the acceptance of solar power in Sacramento County, California.

Sacramento residents signed up in droves for the privilege of putting 4 kW grid-connected solar panels on their roofs, despite the cost of well over $10 per watt. (today the cost is about $2 per watt) The program, sponsored and administered by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), was sold out from the very beginning due to the perception of low risk, which attracted both early- and late-majority members of the mainstream.

Lower the Perception of Risk

SMUD’s PV Pioneer Program offered a complete solar solution, that was sold and installed by trusted suppliers, which made the buying experience familiar and low risk.

To accelerate mainstream market acceptance, the utility: standardized the system, subsidized local manufacturing of solar panels to ensure high quality, invested heavily in community outreach and education, integrated the rooftop solar systems with the existing electrical grid, and trained and certified local solar companies.

The impact of a utility or familiar vendor offering a low-risk product makes all the difference.  All of the requirements of a risk-averse, mainstream buyer were satisfied.

1. Affinity
  • Centralized installation and servicing infrastructure managed by the local utility
  • Evolving ownership options with varying economic rewards
  • Multiple support services: roof inspections, safety assessments, energy efficiency audits, etc.
  • Customized economic analysis provided in advance
  • Workflow compatibility exceptionally good. Utility provided turnkey installations
  • Completely familiar because the utility was well known and trusted in the area of electrical generation and supply
2. Reliability
  • “Eco-Pioneer” S. David Freeman played key roles in energy policy at TVA, the EPA, and the Ford Foundation
  • SMUD brand was focused on energy efficiency with substantial investment in renewable energy
  • PV manufacturing facility built on site to accelerate the advancement of thin-film solar panels
  • Market vision known as “sustained orderly development and commercialization”
  • Product roadmap was the systematic transition to “rooftop solar”
  • Partnership strategy focused on working with local installers and service providers
3. Assurance
  • Standardized system configuration with one size only
  • Earthquake reliability and security for homeowners provided
  • Sponsorship by the local utility, a known and trusted partner in the community
  • QA/QC assurance certification required for all complimentary components
  • Focus on “neighborhood systems” allowed communities to engage with solar as a group
  • Peer-to-peer interaction enabled through community meetings
IBM PC Lower the Perception of Risk
1. Affinity
  • Trusted retail channel (such as Sears) for consumers
  • Complete, value-based offering including an operating system, hardware, peripherals, application software, etc.
  • Third-party classes on how to use VisiCalc (for evaluation support).
  • Retail computer stores allowed exploration
  • Workflow compatibility initially designed for financial analysis using spreadsheet software
  • Familiar user experience with similarity to IBM typewriters and word processors
2. Reliability
  • Created by one of the most credible companies in U.S. business history. Managed by Bill Lowe, the lab director at IBM Boca Raton
  • Open architecture strategy. Supported by a large vendor community that ensures interoperability.
  • IBM followed Intel’s roadmap for their CPU going forward.
  • IBM’s brand awareness is based on customer sentiment, the buyer’s journey, social segments, social prospecting, and competitive analysis.
  • IBM’s market vision was to set the de facto technical standards for personal computers (similar to their accomplishment with mainframes)
  • Partnership strategy focused on retail partners for important knowledge of the marketplace
3. Assurance
  • “Clone” architecture included a standardized ATX/AT form factor, a basic input-output system (BIOS) and an ISA/EISA bus standard, plus implied compatibility with IBM mainframes
  • Multiple providers of anti-virus software
  • Sponsorship by IBM, the most trusted and well-known name in computing
  • Plethora of how-to books, add-on peripherals, software and services
  • Industry-specific forums provided references and guidance
  • Unlimited user groups for peer-to-peer interaction

The Personal Computer

Mostly through coincidence and accidental synergy, IBM created an ultra-low-risk product that launched a massive transformation, and the personal computer became a mainstream appliance. Intangible attributes in all three sections of the Low Risk Recipe allowed PC adoption to soar.

When IBM sponsored development of the “IBM compatible PC” along with its clone architecture, the foundation for safety and predictability in personal computing was established.

End-user harmony was provided through the availability and delivery of complete solutions including an operating system, hardware, peripherals, application software and extensive documentation. Familiar retail stores such as Sears allowed prospective customers to test drive and explore PCs before purchase. Along with Sears, computer-specialty stores such as Computerland and Computer City were chosen to introduce the IBM PC.

Even with a complete product offering and familiar distribution channels, the cooperation between vendors in the PC category was even more transformative. Because the IBM PC was built from commercially available, off-the-shelf parts, all other PC vendors had full and open access to IBM’s design. So, the entire industry organized itself around the IBM-compatible hardware standard. IBM PC “clones” included a standardized ATX/AT form factor, a basic input-output system (BIOS) and an ISA/EISA bus standard. When PC manufacturers adopted this standardized configuration, it eliminated the potential risk of “vendor lock-in,” and full-scale mainstream adoption followed. A virtually unlimited supply of how-to books and manuals were available to support application software such as Wordstar, Lotus 1-2-3 and Ashton Tate DBASE .

One of the risk-lowering mechanisms included in the PC clone standard was the implied compatibility with the world of computing, which was made possible by IBM’s participation and sponsorship. The availability of a standardized product, and hundreds of complimentary add-ons along with the sponsorship of the most dominant name in computing allowed PC adoption to skyrocket.

Last but not least, attributes providing Safety in Numbers included the availability of independently-produced anti-virus software, as well as independent service providers and consultants. But the greatest impact came from the plethora of user groups that self-organized to provide an independent source of information and support for users of all kinds.