Stage 5.2.2  Key People

Who and Where Are a Group’s Key Members and Deciders?

Diffusion of an innovation begins with the acceptance of the idea by a few key members of a community. From there on, it begins to spread more rapidly, usually through word-of­mouth contacts between friends, neighbors, and relatives. This person-to-person process is very effective; once it has started and there are clusters of people who accept the idea and are "talking it up," it gathers momentum. A chain reaction seems to be generated once this "critical mass" of key individuals has formed, and there is a rapid upswing in the rate of acceptance until a large majority has been won over.

Three types of people play a significant part in generating group acceptance. These are the "innovators," the "resisters," and the "leaders." Because the characteristics of these three types of people have been studied extensively by social scientists, we are in a position to understand who they are and how they work regardless of the particular innovation we are concerned with.

The Innovators

The innovators tend to be intelligent and risk-taking; they travel a lot, they read a lot, they depend more than others on outside sources of information, they tend to trust such sources more, and they are usually very receptive to influence by outside change agents (of which you may be one!) They also tend to be marginal to their home communities, viewed as "odd balls" or mavericks. Thus, they do not usually have a great deal of direct power or influence. Therefore, they can be both an asset and a liability to the change agent. These people will have commitment to a new idea and are willing to stand up and be counted even though they may be risking the scorn and ridicule of others, but if they have stood up too often for lost causes they may not be an effective ally. Usually, inside members of inside-outside change agent teams can be recruited from this group.

The Resisters

Many social systems also contain some members who assume the active role of resisters or critics of innovation. They are the defenders of the system the way it is, the self-appointed guardians of moral, ethical, and legal standards. Although such people are "conservative" in a strictly logical sense, they may wear all kinds of labels from "radical" and "liberal" to "reactionary." Resisters of various orders have been very successful in preventing or slowing down such diverse innovations as the fluoridation of community water supplies, urban renewal, legal abortion, the integration of neighborhoods, and the usurpation of civil liberties by such means as wire tapping and indiscriminate school testing. From the diversity of these issues it should be evident that the resisters do not all march under the same banner. They are a mixed group ideologically even though they tend to function in much the same way. As preservers of a social order these innovation resisters often play a constructive preservative role by resisting intrusions from potentially damaging outside influences, the antibodies in our social blood stream.

The Leaders

Many studies of how groups accept innovations have singled out one very important social role that they have identified as the "opinion leader." Opinion leaders are found in any community and they are the key to the growth of any movement. Study after study has shown that there are certain influential people who are held in high esteem by the great majority of their fellows. They tend to have control of the wealth and power of society. They are usually not the first to tryout new ideas because they need to maintain their standing with their followers. These opinion leaders always have a finger on the public pulse, but at the same time they listen to both the innovators and the resisters so that they can better size up a developing situation. They watch the innovator to see how the idea works, and they watch the resister to test the social risks of adopting the idea. Indeed, in many case they are eager to observe these changes because their continuance in power rests upon their ability to judge innovations. They want to be the champions of the innovation whose time has come. Therefore, they must be able to adopt changes at the point at which they become popularly feasible but before they are fully accepted by the majority.

Leadership of any kind has critical strategic importance in a change program, whether that leadership be formal, informal, administrative, or elective. The school superintendent, the principal, the esteemed senior teacher will all have a great deal of "opinion leadership" on a wide range of innovations. Some act as legitimators, making the majority feel that it is okay to try something out without having the axe fall. Others serve as facilitators, approving and rewarding the innovators and encouraging others to follow their example, getting clearance, providing funds and release time, and generally making it easier to be an innovator. Still others serve as gatekeepers, opening up (or closing off) access to needed resources, funds, outside consultants, training courses, etc. The gatekeeper is often not the top person in an organization and may be function-specific, e.g., the business manager, the training director, or the boss's secretary.

There is some dispute in the research literature as to whether opinion leadership is general or topic-specific. The great field theorist and social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, ran a series of group experiments on how to induce changes in eating habits during World War II. He found that for such behaviors at that time, the female head of household was the gatekeeper, doing all the food buying and cooking.