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The Wave of Selling a Disruptive Idea: iPad Case Study

02 Apr 2012

In conversations that I am currently having with executives around the globe on the topic of dealing with change, I am struck by the human challenge of selling a disruptive idea.

Few of us have mastered this art form, yet it is a critical one if we are to transition our teams into the future.

Change is a disruptive idea. Some of us like change, others despise the concept. Yet, any new innovation, product, service, or vision needs to be pitched in such a way that people buy into it.

So how do you sell a disruptive idea, like change, to your organisation and the people that you lead?

To illustrate the concept of selling a disruptive idea, I have drawn on two great sources of inspiration.

This is my visual synthesis of merging the two concepts, which is a useful illustration for how you, as a leader, will be able to better:

  • sell the concept of change to ensure emotional buy-in
  • target your communications to enable critical mass in the up-take of the idea
  • guide people through the project management side in the execution of ‘sustainable change'

So let us look at how Steve Jobs sold us the disruptive idea of embracing the iPad as a way of communicating, working, and connecting.

The key elements in this Wave of Selling a Disruptive Idea are:

  1. An Innovation - ie. the iPad
  2. Communication Channels - both social and professional / analogue and digital channels
  3. Time - the length of time required to pass through the innovation decision-process by the adopters
  4. Social System - interrelated human beings who were potentially in the market for a device they did not know they needed

So let us take a look at how we bought into this disruptive idea.

On January 27th, 2010, the iPad was launched by then Apple CEO, Steve Jobs at an event in San Francisco. In looking at the way Steve was able to drum up interest for the device, a few key pieces about his keynote stand out:

  • Steve's authentic use of inspiring words like ‘revolutionary', ‘amazing', ‘incredible', ‘way better than...', and ‘new'
  • The fact that the event was high in ‘digilogue communications' - ie. it was high tech, yet also high touch - analogue and digital - at the same time. It was a physical / live event, that was also broadcast around the web in what was essentially a sales pitch. Viewers were thus able to access both informative and transformative content
  • Steve also showcased the ease of use in his demonstration, which made adoption seem like a straightforward and exciting learning opportunity

So what then transpired along the wave of selling a disruptive idea?

Wave of Selling a Disruptive Idea iPad Anders Sorman-Nilsson Thinque Diffusion of Innovations

Apple went to market with the iPad. Rather than trying to sell the iPad to everyone, they focussed on the 2.5% of people in society who are the innovators. These were the people who cued outside Apple stores world-wide, sometimes for days, in the hope and anticipation of snatching one of these exclusive new devices.

So, in iPad's baby phase, acceptance and excitement amongst technological innovators was key. Excitement and buy-in amongst this cohort happened as a result of a couple of factors:

  • Exclusivity - innovators self-select by being first to market. For them there is intrinsic value in ‘being first'. Apple used this in its usual fashion by not marketing the device, but knowing that these guys, in typical Apple fandemonium fashion, would camp outside the store for days
  • A limited amount of iPads were produced so that the next segment of the market, the early adopters, would have to wait, and the innovators had thus been rewarded for their patience. The innovators were adopted as a valued inner core to the Apple family, and by being exclusive members of the club, many took to the web and video to share their delicate unwrapping and uses of the iPad

In the second phase in Apple's marketing and selling of the disruptive idea, the early adopters jumped on board. These were the people who waited for user-generated reviews, who would read about different hacks, who critically evaluated the depth of the app store, and who wanted to see it demonstrated, not just by Steve Jobs, but real people amongst their adaptive group of friends. The Peer-to-Peer (P2P) exchange of ideas and uses were critical as the iPad learnt to walk, and climb higher up the wave of selling a disruptive idea.

During the second phase of the diffusion of this innovation, Apple's disruptive idea went from 2.5% of the market, to a further 13.5% of the market.

Together, the innovators and early adopters make up an extremely critical component of the wave. It is during these two phases that the wave gathers momentum, and social proof of the value of the idea are being communicated, not just internally amongst innovators and early adopters, but as the idea starts filtering into the majority of the population.

The 16% of innovators and early adopters would not constitute a product launch success, and equally inside your organisation, just getting 16% of change agents on board with your new vision would not constitute a successful change management process. If only 16% of your leaders adopted emotionally intelligent leadership behaviours as part of your emotional intelligence initiative, that would not be a success. Equally, as in one of my clients' cases, if only 16% of their sales staff effectively adopted the iPad's replacement instead of the laptop as their primary communication and sales tool, this would not be a success.

Yet the change agents, the change makers, inside your organisation can safely be categorised as part of either:

  • the innovators
  • the early adopters

They are not necessarily part of the executive. In fact, likelihood is that only very few are part of the establishment.

Anders Sorman-Nilsson Thinque Diffusion of Innovations

You are likely to find these 16% on the periphery, maybe as part of your emerging leaders programs. It doesn't matter whether they are 21, 31, 41, 51, 61, or even better 71, 81 of age. Ideas are not ageist, and if you can empower this group to become brand advocates of your new idea, vision, product, service, solution, direction, these guys are the ones that are likely to impact the rest of the organisation in that direction.

Yet, there is a chasm between the change agents and the majority. To bridge the chasm you need 2 things:

  • social proof, and
  • buy-in

During this phase of the iPad's uptake, we were no longer interested in communiques like Steve Jobs' keynote from Jan 27, 2010. More important was whether the device worked, and whether it added real benefit to its users. Social proof of its usability and positive impact became key, and as we saw our friends, colleagues, parents, kids, and neighbours interacting and innovating with the device, we, ‘the early majority' became interested.

We discovered that the iPad could be used for viewing media through the iTunes store, that TED videos could be accessed easily via an app, that you could use the iPad instead of your old Moleskine diary, that calendaring was easy, and that both kids and grandparents around the world loved interacting across its platform on Skype.

The iPad had gotten off its feet, and onto a bike and made a leap across the chasm, by generating buy-in from the early stages of the masses. This leap across from the 16% to the majority is critical as the majorities represent a total of 68% of the market share, depicted by the yellow line in the Wave of Selling a Disruptive Idea.

While the iPad had always been cool, when it was first launched, there was a lot of hesitancy as to whether it would actually take off. Tablet devices and touch interfaces had been launched unsuccessfully in the past, and once again Apple wasn't first to market (in a similar vein to the iPod which was not the first Mp3 player). Clearly, though, Apple had thought through the launch of the iPad, and by integrating 3G technology, it meant that social proof was easier to garner as the change agents, and early majority displayed their love for their iPads publically, and not just in their wifi-enabled homes and office spaces. At the top of the the Wave of Selling a Disruptive Idea, the iPad had hit its stride and achieved a cool status that oozed social proof.

At this stage, the late majority got involved. Some had received the iPads as gifts from the kids, often the improved iPad 2, which had had some the initial kinks of the iPad 1 ironed out. This tended to be an older demographic, and sometimes the social proof needed for them to adopt the technology was enterprise driven roll-outs. All of a sudden, the device had become not only a social device, but also a professional device, with productivity uses way beyond the initial media consumption applicability of the device.

At this stage, it's important to note that for the majority (both early and late), to adopt a disruptive idea, 5 essential factors, according to Rogers' initial assessment of the diffusion of innovations are key.

  • Relative Advantage - how improved an innovation is compared to other stuff in the market place (iTunes, screen quality, Wifi browsing, app store)
  • Compatibility - the level of compatibility the iPad had in order to be assimilated into an individual's life (iTunes library, iCloud syncing,
  • Complexity or Simplicity - if it's too hard to use, people are unlikely to adopt it (user-generated videos of babies using the device natively were critical in garnering proof of its easy of use)
  • Trialability - how easily the idea may be experimented with as it's being adopted (iPads on display can be used and played with in Apple concept stores free of charge and if you have tech issues, just consult a Genius to trial some new stuff)
  • Observability - the extent to which an innovation is visible to others (the iPad's colourful cases and unique lack of an external keyboard made the iPads very visible and drove communication and positive reactions)
Wave of Selling A Disruptive Idea Anders Sorman-Nilsson Thinque Diffusion of Innovations

So how have the 16% of society's laggards adopted this disruptive idea. Laggards tend typically to be the last to adopt a disruptive idea, and have little or no opinion leadership. They tend to distrust change agents and tend to be focussed on ‘traditions'. The way to get these guys on board is to acknowledge the ways of old, and use terms like, ‘don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and you may also like to consider this device if you don't want to be left behind'. Apple does this beautifully, because tech groups have sprung up around the world in retirement communities where Peer-to-Peer tech advice is being shared about Apple products.

So there you have it. A great illustration of a thought leader's ability to sell a disruptive idea along the wave of our social system.

If you're a leader and have to sell the idea of change - a disruptive idea - how would you do it?

  • Which segments of your organisation would you focus on?
  • How would you empower them to be influential?
  • What would be a way for you to create social proof of the benefit of the idea?
  • Are you mapping who is changing their behaviours, and what segment they belong to - does this indicate the success of your thought leadership?

The wave of selling a disruptive idea is an illustration of thought leadership and garnering buy-in for a new direction, and critical novel behaviours amongst a critical audience.

In Anders Sorman-Nilsson's futurist keynote 'Waves of Change' your organisation will gain critical insights into the latest disruptions that will hit your industry shores, and how you can opt to be the disruptor instead of the disrupted. 

Please leave your comments on how you think you might use it in your leadership and innovation efforts.

If you're interested in engaging Thinque to coach your executives and emerging leaders on how to sell disruptive ideas in your organisation, please enquire now by emailing us on

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