[Note: this article previously appeared on Slaw.com]
I recently saw an exciting legal tech product that has a lot of potential. I think it could make many people’s lives much easier. And a partner wants to mandate its usage! You can probably see where this is going. It was a struggle the moment we tried to get others on board: elements didn’t line up with others’ preferences; people were upset about the learning curve; there was massive passive resistance.
This was just one of many similar experiences. It seems technology and persuasion are not sufficient – and barely necessary – to create sustainable mainstream adoption of a new tool. As much as I might feel someone else is “not getting it,” it is the legal innovator, like me, who is failing to relate to the wants and of that individual. Rather than try to persuade other lawyers and staff, it is more important to understand and accommodate.
We all see things differently. But what I often miss is how we aren’t even looking at the same things. Where I might look for the potential competitive advantage of a product, another might never see past the lack of support available for it. Complaining that others can’t see it the way I do just reveals the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe. Of course, this is neither true nor helpful. Without attempting to understand my clients’ criteria, I’m just talking past them.
On the one hand, understanding and accommodating are crucial. As Seth Godin suggests, the number one adoption technique is to tell your client “You were right all along: The thing you were waiting for is here”. On the other hand, if I’m not helping my organization prepare itself for the changing trends then I’m not doing my job. And that involves moving beyond where the mainstream users would be comfortable. Squaring “you were right all along” with “we need to change” is not easy. Below is my current thinking on how to do so.
My own interests don’t really matter
Being responsible for innovation is exciting. You are looking for breakthrough opportunities that would leave your competitors behind. To stay ahead, you accept a certain amount of glitches because you must act fast: the window of opportunity is closing! The future is now! Of course, not everybody feels that way.
Thankfully, the Diffusion of Innovations is a well understood phenomenon (see graph below). The diffusion of any new way of doing things (from corn farmers to Facebook) must win over distinct types of users in the same order. Unsurprisingly, these different users decide on when to buy something based on very different criteria:
- Innovators are interested in functionality: can this do x? (something that has never been done before)
- Early Adopters are interested in reliability: can this do x reliably enough that it can be a source of competitive advantage? (or, in the Facebook example, a new source of social capital)
- The Early Majority are interested in convenience: will x make my life easier?
- The Late Majority are interested in price: is the cost of not using x higher than the cost of using it? [Note: “cost” is also subjectively-defined (money, time, peer or boss approval, etc.)]
You can visualize it like this:
Understanding the different buying criteria alone has both helped and complicated my understanding of how to pitch something. For example, a senior lawyer won’t use with a tool the same way as an assistant, but that only accounts for one part of the equation. In addition to catering to one’s role, I need to cater to one’s adopter profile. So instead of, say, four different roles in your firm (assistant, partner, etc.) there are now four roles multiplied by probably three of the adopter types. 
To illustrate how different these adopter types can be, consider the chart below, drawn from the brilliant Crossing the Chasm:
|Early Adopter||Early Majority|
|Looks out at the competitive landscape||Looks within the organization|
|Better = something that changes how the company conducts its business||Better = something that marginally improves something, but keeps the existing operations|
|Decides by comparing the different ways something could be done, across categories||Decides by evaluating similar products against others that fall within a common category|
|Interested in “state-of-the-art”||Interested in “industry standard”|
The two aren’t even looking at the same things. No matter how interesting I find a new state of the art tool, I will not be able to sell it to someone further along the adoption stages unless I can say it is “industry standard” in some way. Furthermore, the universal nature of this chart suggests that constantly looking to see what others are doing before jumping on board is not unique to lawyers. It is inherent to being a mainstream customer.
One adjustment I’ve found to be effective in my own adoption efforts is talking about how safe a tool is, or how easy someone can fix a mistake on it. While I don’t find the ability to “undo” something particularly exciting, I have to remind myself that it’s not about what I find interesting. For most lawyers, “efficiency” is an insufficient reason to change the way they do things. I will never change that fact. Instead, I have to find tools that appeal to others through their personal criteria.
Fortunately, we are all Early and Late Adopters in certain areas. Trailblazing can be exhausting. It would require too much time and energy to be this way with everything. We all have certain categories (e.g. nutrition, home entertainment systems, vacation locales) where industry standards are sufficient. We can channel our inner pragmatism and conservatism to redefine “better” in terms that a given audience will relate to.
Most Adoption is not about the tech
The Early Adopters are often called “visionaries” because they can take a generic tech product and envision the potential. Take electric cars: the early adopters were willing to look past the inconveniences of no charging stations and low range. Most people just want to get from A to B in the most convenient way possible. As discussed above, it is not a coincidence that convenience was the barrier to mainstream adoption. The majority just want things to work.
The gap between the generic tech product (e.g. a reliable electric car) and a product that is genuinely convenient (e.g. an electric car that provides a better all-around experience than a gas car) is where many products fail. The challenge of making a product truly more convenient often so difficult that it is where many companies fail – thus earning “the chasm” its ominous name.
Function and reliability don’t require the same level of customer understanding as convenience. To make something more convenient, not only must you understand what that word means to a specific customer, but account for “convenience” meaning different things to different people. The gap between a generic product for Early Adopters and a convenient product for the Early Majority is called the “whole product:”
If you accept that mainstream users won’t put up with a less convenient product, and that providing such a product requires more than merely generic technology, then our diffusion curve now looks like this:
Having a great underlying technology is neither sufficient nor necessary to break into the mainstream. Having to learn a host of new skills or to rearrange one’s workflow is not convenient, which is why the above arrows cross paths at the chasm – when convenience becomes the main reason to buy. The need for convenience is so important that David Cambria, the godfather of legal operations, has refused to implement products where lawyers would have to engage “in a single unnatural act.”.
A quick word on mandating usage
I used to think “this would be so much better if we just required everybody to use this tool.” I was wrong. For starters, I’m generally not the one using these tools day-in, day-out; so lobbying that others do so would be a tad presumptuous. Secondly, it would mean that I forego understanding my audience. Innovators and Early Adopters make up only 15% of my target audience. And it should be no surprise that failure to understand 85% of the target audience usually portends a slow but certain death for any new process, product or service.
Mandating usage without taking the time to understand and accommodate can only go so far. As Bill Henderson explains, political capital is limited:
In theory, management can fix this [adoption] problem by mandating usage. They can fire people. They can reduce or withhold bonuses. Political capital, however, is limited. Few bosses want the troops grumbling about how a six-figure software mistake is hindering their ability to do their jobs. So the natural equilibrium becomes enterprise software that is half used. This is usually a modest improvement over the prior state of affairs, but well short of expectations when the licensing agreement was signed.
A bleak, familiar picture indeed.
Conclusion: Pick your battles
At this point, I’m fairly convinced that the only way to win over others is to understand them enough to give them what they want (as Seth Godin puts it, “the thing you were waiting for is here”). Cambria’s baseline of not implementing something that requires lawyers to perform “a single unnatural act” fits this thinking. However, how can I follow this route and still call myself an innovator?
Fortunately, Everett Rogers (who wrote the book on the Diffusion of Innovations) seems to agree. He centers the worthwhile efforts of change agents around building relationships with one’s clients:
- Frequent contact with clients
- Try to solve a client’s problems instead of advancing your own agenda
- See the world through the eyes of the client
- Act like the client would act
- Gain credibility in the clients’ eyes
- Work through others
- Improving technical competence of clients
In going so far as advocate to solve client’s problems instead of advancing your own agenda, I think what Rogers is getting at is that relationships must come first. Making deposits in others “relational bank accounts” means there you have some credit to “withdraw” when asking others to try something new and uncomfortable.
Even Google aims to spend 70% of its resources on core functions. Part of the logic behind this is that advancing something truly innovative is demanding. You need robust relationships and a strong track record (cf. The Hard Truth About Innovative Cultures). Plus, we are dealing with finite resources; limiting the disruptive projects to one or two gives them a better chance for success. As Moore puts it: “if you do not commit fully to [focusing exclusively on… one or two narrowly bounded markets], the odds are overwhelmingly against you ever arriving in the mainstream market.”
It may sound less exciting to limit how much you try to persuade others to try new technology. But if that’s what Google, Cambria, and Rogers do, I think it’s worth trying. The mainstream users comprise 70% of a total audience. Add on the laggards and you have 85%. It just makes some sense to spend the most time building relationships with these people by giving them what they want.