Managing Change: the S-Curve

A few years ago I attended an Apple education event where a story was used to help us think about change management. We were invited to imagine that we were on a desert island, with another, better island in the distance. What sort of person were we? Were we the swimmer who immediately jumped into the water and started speeding off to the next island? Or were we the observer, standing on the shore with our binoculars and surveying the water for dangers, obstacles and perhap sharks? Or were we the flag-holder, someone who was going to stay put on the current island thank you very much and had no intention of going anywhere?

I would definitely say I was a swimmer, but it was interesting to discuss about the positives and negatives of each position and how all were important in managing change. Swimmers might get to new places quicker but could also get themselves into trouble. Observers are good at looking ahead and identifying possible problems and issues with a change, but can also be slow to actually take action. Flag-holders are good at championing the benefits of the status quo and questioning the genuine need for a change, although they can hold it back unnecessarily.

What was said next was the most fascinating though: to get to the island, what you really need is a boat. There needs to be a way that everyone can get across to the new island without leaving people behind. And sometimes you might need to burn the flag – staying behind and avoiding the change isn’t an option any more!

This way of thinking about managing change suggests a deep understanding of the Diffusion of Innovations theory (or S-curve). The S-curve theory is about the process of how new ideas, innovations and technology are adopted within a society or social group. It suggests that there are:

  1. Innovators – those who first invent or use a new technology or idea
  2. Early adopters – this who begin to use it more widely
  3. Early majority – a larger group who begin to also use the innovation
  4. Late majority – most of the remaining half of people who then accept the innnovation
  5. Laggards – those who relunctantly capitulate to the innovation, a significant amount of time after the innovators and early adopters

The theory can be applied to any new innovation in history, be it boiling water to sterilise and kill germs, the emergence of the motor car or using computers in school. Returning to the picture of the islands, perhaps the swimmer is the innovator and early adopter, the observer is the early and late majority, and the flag-holder is the laggard.

As someone who wants to see education transformed with (Apple) technology, this theory is really fascinating. Only a small proportion of teachers will adopt a new idea to begin with, but over time many, most and finally all will also adopt it too. I have found this with all of the changes I’ve sought to bring in school, be it with introducing Macs, teacher iPads, ditching Smartboards or going 1:1 iPad with kids or starting to use Slack. It takes time to introduce a change, but there is a critical point where a ‘boat’ is required to accelerate its adoption and give people an easy enough path to move from where they are into the new thing. There is also a point where the old approach and method needs to be decisively removed to enable everyone to move together.