It was in the corn fields of Iowa that Everett Rogers learned what it meant to accomplish change. As a member of the agricultural extension of the University of Iowa, he studied how some farmers adopted innovations and others didn’t. He discovered five factors that influenced adoption but more importantly how it’s one thing to know about an innovation and quite another thing to change your practices.
Farm Production Context
To understand the power of Rogers’ innovations you must realize that during the roughly 50 years that Rogers studied farming, the amount of food produced per acre approximately doubled. That’s amazing given that production per acre had been largely stagnant for decades. It wasn’t a single innovation that instantly doubled productivity, but it was instead a set of smaller changes that when added together produced such great results.
It’s also important to acknowledge that, simultaneous to the increase in per-acre production, farmers with machinery were able to increase the number of acres they could farm with the same number of people. This multiplied the growth effect and made some farmers very wealthy while others went bankrupt.
Increasing productivity dropped the per-bushel price of agricultural commodities. If you didn’t keep up with the productivity growth, you might be forced out of the business of farming, because the same level of food production would be less valuable to the market and to you.
These farming innovations were not secrets. Universities, the United States government, and others were freely sharing techniques for improving performance. While communications were substantially less effective than they are today, any innovation that was effective could be known by most farmers by the next year.
Rogers realized it wasn’t the knowledge that was the barrier to implementing the innovations. There was something that had to change before they would make a change in their practices: their attitudes.
While we will accept knowledge from mass media – back then, newspapers, almanacs, and barber shops – most people don’t change their attitude unless they know the person who has tried it and they know they could believe the results. He found that innovators would try things even if they didn’t know the people who reported success, but most people needed what we’d call social proof today.
For that to work, the person who tried it had to be enough like the person for them to accept their ideas. The innovators couldn’t directly influence the majority, because they were too different. However, there were a set of early adopters that wouldn’t put their neck out like the innovators would to try things, but they were more willing to try things an thus were enough like the innovators to drive change.
Once the early adopters had demonstrated that the idea worked, the majority would follow – but only once they’d made a personal decision.
Changing practice ultimately came down to a personal choice. Once they accepted the change was going to help, they had to decide to do it. Some of the majority would take the leap early, and some of the majority would linger before taking the leap. The early and late majority then would take action after the early adopters but sometimes after a delay.
The key to Rogers’ experience here is that while we can get knowledge from mass media, most of us only change our attitudes when someone we are in a relationship with is willing to say that it works, and even this isn’t enough. We must ultimately make a personal decision if we’re going to make a change. That means all change that we push for in our organizations are personal changes.