Big behavior change from the outside: Finding an early adopter

Selling an enterprise service. Lobbying for new legislation. Acquiring a company. They all might seem very different, but they share at least one thing in common: they each require an outsider to get a lot of people to commit to a shift in behavior. 

When a salesperson tries to get a company to buy her service, she probably doesn’t just need to convince one person; she needs to convince a group of users and a few decision makers that paying for something new is worth the effort. When a lobbyist needs to get something signed into law, she doesn’t just need to convince a single politician; that lobbyist needs to build consensus among a big group of lawmakers to prioritize her policy above their current set of goals. When a CEO wants to acquire a new business, she needs to convince her C-level team, her Board, and the target company’s shareholders that merging will create better results than the status quo.

Of course some of these examples are more complex than others, but they are all big lifts in one way or another. How do you get a bunch of people inside an organization to care about something that you care about, particularly if you are sitting on the outside? More importantly, how do you get them to care so much that they spend the time and energy to try something totally different?

This is what we have to figure out at Zipline. We have this crazy technology that can make instant deliveries to rural and remote areas that would otherwise be impossible to reach in hours or even days. We want governments to use our technology to have a big impact on health outcomes. It seems like a no brainer until you think about all the things that have to change in order for our technology to start saving lives. Civil airspace needs to accommodate the traffic that comes with a new class of autonomous flying robots. The public health system needs to shift its entire supply chain to adjust for the new possibilities of automated delivery. The government needs to allocate budget because any new technology comes at a cost. And before all this happens, key stakeholders need to spend money and resources on determining whether these big changes are even worth their effort, or whether their time is better spent on something else. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have tried to break the process into steps.

The first step is getting a foot in the door with an early adopter. Not everyone within an organization will immediately get excited about an innovation. In fact, many people will absolutely hate it. To many, the word innovation means uncertainty, it means cost, and it usually means more work (at least at the beginning).

Who are the kinds of people who get excited about an innovation before everyone else? It’s usually the people who are closest to the problem that’s being solved. In Zipline’s case, the problem we are solving is helping governments increase access to medical supplies. That usually means the people who get excited are stakeholders within Ministries of Health who understand the challenges of healthcare logistics. But if Zipline were creating accounting software for Ministries of Health, we would of course be approaching a different set of people within that organization.

These early adopters provide a really amazing perspective on what is currently working and what isn’t. If they are close the problem you are trying to solve and don’t immediately love what you’re doing, there’s probably something wrong with it. But once they are bought in, they can act as thought partners, they can help you tweak and improve what you’re trying to do, and can help you craft a message that will resonate with others. They can even give you a peek behind the curtain and give you a sense of who the movers and shakers are, who has decision-making power, and who the right people are to convince. And you know when your early adopters are truly excited when they become advocates inside their organization to help accelerate what you’re trying to accomplish.