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In a poignant scene from the HBO series John Adams, Abigail Adams sits stoically in front of her children as she allows the town doctor to make an incision in her arm using a rusty scalpel and insert infected tissue from a freshly deceased small pox victim into her wound. With everyone around her succumbing to the disease, Abigail makes the radical decision to immunize herself and her children. By refusing to show her children fear or pain and by displaying confidence in the doctor’s methods, Abigail persuades her children to line up one by one for their turn.
Abigail Adams was an early adopter of the change she wished to see. While the Chinese were experimenting with vaccinations as early as the 2nd century (http://www.historyofvaccines.org/), the idea of injecting yourself with the very disease you sought to avoid was still a relatively unknown, scary and revolutionary thought in the 1700s. Today, immunizations have brought numerous diseases under control and saved millions of lives. But where would we be today if early adopters, such as Abigail Adams, had rejected the mantle of change?
I bring up this example to stress how critical it is to enlist an early adopter (or adopters) to role model and champion the new behaviors in your transformation vision. Using an early adopter program allows you to test and execute your ideas, establish momentum and— importantly—take pulse checks, which I’ll discuss in my next blog.
4 Characteristics of early adopters
The first thing you need to do is recruit ambassadors or advocates who are willing to pilot your program. What does an early adopter look like? Like Abigail Adams, early adopters share four characteristics:
- They live in the future, not the present. They harbor a vision of what could or should be and use that vision to govern their actions.
- They are fueled by passion and inspire passion in others. Without this infectious zeal, it’s difficult to muster the required energy to assault the fortress of the status quo.
- They possess a strong ability to self-motivate. They are able to get up every day and risk being misunderstood, knowing that they might never even see the change they advocate. Because they’re self-motivated, they’re also willing to champion your vision without expecting anything in return; their reward is the realization of the new vision because they want it as much as you do.
- They understand people. While change is part sales, part counseling and part encouragement, it’s always all about human being.
Using an early adopter program allows you to test and execute your ideas, establish momentum and— importantly—take pulse checks.
What to expect of your early adopters
Once you’ve enlisted a group of stakeholders to serve as early adopters, let them know what you expect of them. Ask your change ambassadors if they would be willing to:
- Attend a virtual session on leading the transformation
- Conduct conversations about the transformation program with your network
- Volunteer to support transformation activities
- Share personal and friends’ success stories through social media, in town hall gatherings, and in management meetings
- Impart “voice from the street” feedback to your transformation work
4 Different roles of early adopters
It is also a good idea to enable your early adopters with different strategies for carrying out their role. While their main task is to model the new change before everyone else does, they can do this by wearing any of four different “hats”:
- First responder—They are the “pioneer” who gets involved in communication and engagement activities that demonstrate a desirable vision of the future
- Buzz builder—They can be “change whisperers” who tell stories to influence and gain commitment from potential skeptics
- Advocate—They can play the “diplomat” by identifying coalitions and balancing conflicting goals while maintaining a helicopter perspective of priorities
- Fan—They act as “cheerleaders” by shouting out support that shows their personal transformation enthusiasm for the new program, ideas and action
People can and will resist change because it’s scary, unpredictable, and tiring. Having early adopters on the front line who can demonstrate that it’s none of those things will increase the odds your vision becomes a reality. As for Abigail Adams, her four children survived smallpox, and her son, John Quincy Adams, went on to become the sixth president of the United States.