Lean Organizational Change

Theory helps us organize and act effectively on our world. We don’t need a theory of gravity to tell us that objects fall to the ground — we need the theory to help us understand why objects fall to the ground. This allows us to design and build bridges, towers, air planes, etc. The same goes for social theories. Social theories help us better understand why people behave in certain ways, how groups organize in certain ways, why something is acceptable in one culture but not another, interpersonal relationships, and how system dynamics produce the outcomes we observe. Most importantly though, theory helps us understand how social change happens.

Form and content

The Dr. Everett Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Curve, is a theory that depicts how new technologies are introduced and adopted in society. When teaching this theory I invite the class to think about innovation adoption as a story of culture change. I encourage the class to avoid thinking about the innovation adoption curve as simply the pattern of how new technologies are adopted through society and instead also understand them as the story of how new behaviours, practices, and perspectives are introduced and adopted by a society. Changing our focus from the content (technology as gadgets and appliances) to the form (the pattern of how technology is introduced and adopted) allows us to see the application of the theory to social and cultural change (ideas, behaviours, attitudes, practices). Arguably the diffusion/adoption curve provides us with a lens that can help us act more effectively and accelerate the adoption of new practices in our organizations.

Scale and fractals

As an undergraduate student many years ago, I would linger at the macro level of theory. For example: applying the diffusion of innovation theory at a global scale. Here for example we’re thinking about how the telephone or the Internet became widely adopted in society. From this perspective, theories exist at an overwhelming scale where individual agency is easily lost and therefore the opportunity to put theory into practice is missed. But theory should empower us to act effectively on our world.

Understanding a little bit about fractals might help us see opportunities to put theory into practice. A fractal is characterized by a pattern that recurs similarly at smaller scales as it does at larger scales. Being able to zoom in and zoom out to see similar patterns allows us to apply lessons from the Macro (societal) scale at Meso (organizations) and Micro (individual) levels. In recognizing this we might then take social theories, such as the Rogers Innovation Adoption Curve and apply them at organizational and individual levels (Rogers theory does indeed cover the personal level).

Applying a blend of theories and models to organizational change

If the Innovation Adoption curve is accurate, and if the story of innovation adoption is also the story of culture change, and if this pattern can be observed at organizational as well as societal levels, then the theory can be used to better understand how we might effectively shift the culture of an organization.

Applying the Innovation Adoption Curve in Government

For the past 2 years I have had the privilege of working in the Government of New Brunswick to grow the innovation maturity of the organization. In our efforts to advance a culture of innovation and accelerate the adoption of new tools and techniques in the provincial government, we have borrowed heavily from the innovation adoption curve. The theory identifies five archetypes in a population along a bell curve:

  1. Innovators — introduce new concepts, tools, behaviours
  2. Early Adopters — join when ideas are fuzzy, technology is buggy. They want to be part of the innovation story
  3. Early Majority — join when they see value
  4. Late Majority — join when there is plenty of support
  5. Laggards — join only when they have to
  6. (Bonus) Resisters — maintain the status quo

This theory has helped us take a focused “show-don’t-tell” approach. I have learned that it is important to start where your organization is at and not try to convince everyone at once. Therefore, in our work at GNB we focus our efforts on identifying the innovators and early adopters in the organization and working with them to model the new and demonstrate value to the Early majority. All the while we are trying and testing ways to spread, support and sustain innovation in Government.

Three Dimensions of Organizational Change

The first dimension of organizational change is at the practitioner level. This is where we apply the Rogers Innovation Adoption curve and its archetypes most obviously in an effort to spread innovation. The innovators are those who introduce new concepts, tools or techniques into the organization while the early adopters are those who are most eager to learn about new concepts and put new tools and techniques into practice.

In GNB we have sought to attract the innovators and early adopters in the organization. That is to say, we have been seeking the more adventurous and committed-to-change among the population of front-line, program, policy, and strategic staff in the organization to show value and create new experiences for our colleagues. People will believe in the value when they see the practice, but they will be changed when they experience it.

By mobilizing the innovators and early adopter in an organization we have been able to put the new into practice in a way that has allowed us to show the value to the more pragmatic segments of the population: the early and late majority. This has opened up more opportunities and more space to demonstrate even more results. One of our earliest examples of this happened in a policy project involving staff from six departments and 6 entrepreneurs. To convene this group and facilitate a collaborative effort we booked an underutilized board room in a warehouse for four months straight. We were then able to demonstrate the value of having such a dedicated space. This effort is partly responsible for the establishment of the first open collaboration space at GNB.

Dimension One activities:Public Innovation Challenge, Public Innovation Internship program, Public Innovation 101 Workshop (mindsets), low cost/low fidelity prototypes.

The second dimension of organizational change is at the management and executive level. At this level we seek to educate and motivate management to support and advocate for innovation. Similarly to the Innovation Adoption archetypes, management attitudes vary from “advocate” to “barrier”. Christian Bason writes about management as either 360 degree innovation enabler or clay layer. Any GNB we have sought to identify management and executive leaders who are proactive and eager to enable new ways of working in order to solve complex and wicked problems. This relationship between the executive champions and innovation practitioners is critical because it is the only way to get the time, space, and resources necessary to do the work and show its results/value.

Dimension Two activities:Executive training, management presentations, Deputy Minister Public Innovation Council.

With the supply-side of innovation mobilized and the innovation champions creating an initial demand pull for innovation, we need a set of repeatable activities and processes to support and sustain the work. We need an innovation framework.

The third dimension of organizational change consists of the organizational condition. At this level we have concerned ourselves with the maturity of the organization as indicated by the practices, processes, programs, policies, and infrastructure that support and sustain innovation.

I have adapted the Berg Consulting innovation maturity model to apply it to a public sector context. Maturity moves through four levels:

  1. Entry Level Innovation Practices — broad reference to innovation, executive sponsorship vague or unknown, limited training, idea boxes and brainstorming, no innovation strategy;
  2. Emerging Innovation Practices — recognized need for innovation, limited executive sponsorship, training programs, siloed innovation strategies & practices;
  3. Coordinated Innovation Practices — common language for innovation, some executive sponsorship, innovation included in strategy, repeatable processes;
  4. Innovation Leadership — imbedded innovation culture, strong executive sponsorship, innovation core to strategy, integrated innovation program across government.

Dimension Three activities: Collaboration space, labs, incubation program, Public Innovation Challenge, design sprints, applications of Theory U, project-based workshops, Public Innovation 201 Workshop (toolsets).

Seeing is believing but experience changes you

If you want to accelerate change in your organization, I have learned that it is important to start where your organization is at. Don’t try to convince everyone at once. Find the folks who want to come on board early and try new things in small ways.

Find executives and managers who will free up resources, time, and space to try new things in small ways. Showing management the value allows them to be better advocates and communicate to the supporters with greater confidence. When you start showing the results, demand will begin increasing. With that increase in demand you will have opportunities to provide new experiences to the more pragmatic segments of your population while showing even greater outcomes. Your colleagues will believe in the value when they see the practice, but they will be changed when they experience it.

The Dr. Everett Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Curve coupled with other organizational maturity models, provides us with a lens on organizational change that can help us act more effectively when introducing new concepts and greatly accelerate the adoption of innovation practice in our organizations. How meta!




Innovation strategy - Professional facilitation - Transformative design - Systems leadership

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Nick Scott

Nick Scott

Innovation strategy - Professional facilitation - Transformative design - Systems leadership

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