AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

Drive Change but Avoid the Chasms

Every change will be met with an equal, opposite, unpredictable change of its own.
—Inspired by Isaac Newton

In “Today’s CIO—Orchestrator in Chief,” we covered how changes can be introduced into organisations, but only eluded to matching different approaches with different audiences. This approach is similar to how marketers segment customers to target different buying behaviours. I am a fan of Geoffrey Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm here. Moore explains how products are adopted over time, from the combustion engine to televisions and cloud computing. In this post, I’ll describe versatile mental model of using different ways to promote change to different members of your organization and explain how to use it through the example of driving cloud adoption with IT employees.

A warning first: change is neither managed nor linear. Attempts to prescribe sequential transformational change steps through management diktat will fail under most circumstances. We humans are complex, unpredictable, and often insusceptible to logic, as Ignaz Semmelweis discovered when he failed to convince doctors to disinfect their hands in the 1800s despite overwhelming evidence of its impact on patient survival rates. A more sensing, adaptive approach is required in which reactions to one change are used to inform the next step.

The Adoption Model

The model is divided into five categories of adoption behaviour, each targeting different members of your organization. The transitions between each phase (or “chasms”) represent points where momentum in your change movement can be lost: as more people in your company adopt your proposal, your audience and the “buying” behaviour you must address change. These chasms require changes in tactics, particularly the chasm between the early adopters and the early majority. The chasms will happen, so don’t ignore them, and also accept that they help protect against the bandwagon effect.

Innovators embrace new ideas, motivated by a curiosity that has yet been knocked out of them by company processes that prioritise stability over innovation. These employees will often be newer, lack an appreciation of the barriers to scaling a new idea, and lack the influence to drive adoption themselves. They are forgiving of imperfect solutions and act as a good initial sounding board.

Early adopters are pickier about where they invest time but typically have more influence and high risk tolerance. They are easy to sell to but hard to please. They buy a dream of what could be rather than the change itself, seeing opportunities to create something grand (and potentially expensive), while often discounting the organisation’s current processes, experiences, and technologies.

While perhaps not opinion leaders, when the early majority embrace a change, it can be considered mainstream given their numbers and financial access. Generally more seasoned employees, they have witnessed many passing fads, so look for evidence of leadership commitment to the change and proof of its effectiveness. Being more conservative, they prefer incremental change over risk and revolution. They discount early adopters as reliable references, preferring to hear from peers inside or outside of the organisation who have adopted the change already. Once on board with the idea, they can be powerful advocates.

The very conservative but professionally committed late majority worry about their own ability to adapt to the change. Their expectation of convenience and usability demands that the change is very mature and holistically thought out.

And the laggards? While often characterised as sceptical and passive aggressive, there are two distinct groups here: those who have genuine concerns often based on experience, and those who have a built-in aversion to change. Unlike the late majority, this group is often driven more by stubbornness rather than fear.

One further word of caution: These personas help describe the stages of adoption and should not be used to label employees. A visionary in one situation might be a conservative in another. Interestingly, these characterisations are often independent of age, tenure, and hierarchal position.

Engaging Each Group

Embrace the Innovators. As you start your cloud journey, the Innovators are likely the folks who have been experimenting with the cloud at home or at work on a credit card. You might need to dig deep into your organisation to find them. Legitimising these experiments and encouraging an active learning mindset is often all that is needed. They are not looking for management support so much as permission to experiment. Significant value can be generated through these learnings on both the approach and fit of the change within the organisation. For example, within McDonald’s, these experiments informed the need for robust common cloud services for master data access and security, among other things.

Observe the Visionaries. While their passion can often create excitement about the change, it’s easy for them to promote and get swept into expensive, risky projects that ultimately might not fit well in your organisation. Don’t let them apply cloud technology to critical initiatives, but find projects with potential business value that excite them. Within McDonald’s, our first foray into the cloud was with a business-sponsored initiative that was speculative, but one that would have been unaffordable without the cloud. While ultimately the initiative wasn’t adopted, it provided numerous learnings and started serious discussions on the technology’s potential. Encourage pilot projects, even ones that sound far-fetched, and keep an eye on scope and cost without killing enthusiasm. Allow the team to deeply engage in the initiatives and to connect with their external technology peers through attendance of events, for example.

Create a beachhead with the Early Majority. It pains me to see big changes tackled with project mindsets given this approach’s abysmal success rate. Instead, look for a small group within this segment that will own an achievable, leverageable project. Put a heavy focus on making the team and project successful, and then repeat the process. You will eventually hit a tipping point where word of mouth and peer influence take over. I have seen this work at all organisational levels. Look for even the smallest opportunity or idea that can create the beachhead. Make these people heroes, reinforce and talk about their efforts to sustain momentum, allocate a disproportionate amount of your time supporting them, and leverage other tips I discuss here. Grow this base. It can become your advocacy arm, virally extending your reach. Be patient. Catchy slogans and charismatic leadership are no replacement for persistence and patience.

 Provide support for the Late Majority. Positional power matters here. These prudent individuals want to hear their leaders’ support and vision for the change, mollifying concerns that this is a mildly interesting idea rather than a serious undertaking. Provide training and certification opportunities, be vocal in your support for the change and the grounded reason for it, and course correct as needed. Look for ways of reducing the risk of participation so individuals feel they can learn safely. Peer reward mechanisms—where an individual can publicly recognise another for the help they’ve provided, giving even the smallest of wins visibility—are incredibly powerful. Bring people together to compare their knowledge and share advice. Each of these steps establishes means by which social proof is asserted. Ultimately, you want to establish a greater dissatisfaction with the status quo than with the change itself, making it easier to follow new process than old habits.

Listen to the Laggards. There is often some validity in the Laggards’ fears, given they have a good pulse on what isn’t working or won’t work. Listening to them will not assuage their fears. Don’t try to sell them on the change, but do welcome their feedback, as it might help you identify potential issues. As the change takes hold with the Late Majority, withdraw funding and support from competing initiatives, but not prematurely. Have empathy and provide support and training to help overcome the natural fear of change, but don’t delay taking action with the small minority that might seek to actively undermine it.

Does this process really work? Yes. Colleagues and I have used it in the past to drive technology consolidation and deployment strategies that took root globally. Is it always the right approach? No. It might not be suitable when you have a proven method of solving a problem, when a company is in a crisis situation, or when you are engaging in continual improvement programmes.

Good luck leaping the chasm!



Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore

10 Step Action Plan for Talent Transformation,” AWS

If You Want to Change The World, You Need to Start With Small Groups, Loosely Connected but United By A Shared Purpose,” Inc Magazine

The Seven Myths of Change Management,” Business Strategy Review

Your Company’s Secret Change Agents,” Harvard Business Review, May 2005

Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun is an Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist at Amazon Web Services (AWS). In this role, Phil works with enterprise executives to share experiences and strategies for how the cloud can help them increase speed and agility while devoting more of their resources to their customers. Prior to joining AWS, Phil held multiple senior technology leadership roles at McDonald’s Corporation. Phil has a BEng in Electronic and Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Business Administration, and an MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice.