Two approaches provide insight into processes associated with major transformations: one describes the movement from innovators to laggards, and another from niche to new regimes.

The roots of the innovator-laggard approach are associated with the innovation adoption and diffusion curve.  Everett Rogers presented the idea in a book in 1962,[1] from looking at cultural change and adoption of new ideas. Geoffrey Moore supplemented this from a marketing perspective, with a 1991 book addressing discontinuous and disruptive innovation in particular.[2]  This is the type of innovation associated with transformation, since it changes its operating environment rather than just fits into it.

Moore realized  that the structures, strategies and behaviors that make innovators and early adopters successful, are actually barriers to gaining support of the early majority.  The former are visionaries, often charismatic, driven by passion, and usually idiosyncratic.  They adopt innovation with a personal decision making approach. The early majority, in stark contrast, are pragmatists.  They are willing to be market leaders – support the innovation before widespread adoption – but they must have a clearly spelled out rationale and pathways. They look for the relevant safety and low risk of a proven innovation with everything surrounding it to fix something that for them is a broken mission critical process.  The innovation has to come from a, preferably the, leader in the whole category of the innovation. For example, in the energy transition category these are people who act after technologies are proven and there is clear policy support to spread the innovations. See a 13 minute video about the chasm. 

Another approach comes from a socio-technical systems perspective developed since the beginning of this millennium.  It is associated with technological diffusion and transitions.[3]  This perspective describes innovations and pilots as creating “niches” in the dominant system that must be protected – think of early solar panel development – because they cannot survive in the traditional operating environment.  The core questions in this tradition are about how to move from this status, to where the innovation becomes dominant and the traditional technologies fade out.  This is referred to as the process of creating a new socio-technical “regime”.  It is accompanied by various supportive activities, such as new policy environments, physical infrastructures and markets.

Accompanying each of these approaches is much more detail about how to develop transformation.  Although they are usually applied to technological innovations, Rogers’ original focus on cultural innovation and adoption of new ideas indicates they hold value for understanding transformation processes in general.

While there are clear lessons and guidelines that emerge from these traditions, the exact nature of what is being transformed and the context of the transformation mean there are no detailed recipes.  This has given rise to speaking of “pathways” to transformation, and the emphasis on the need to work with a range of approaches.

[1] Rogers, EM. 1962. “(1995). Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press.”

[2] Moore, Geoffrey A, and Regis McKenna. 1999. “Crossing the chasm.”

[3] A seminal work in this approach is: Geels, Frank W. 2004. “From sectoral systems of innovation to socio-technical systems: Insights about dynamics and change from sociology and institutional theory.” Research Policy 33(6–7):897-920.