We humans are a curiously stubborn lot. Despite the many advances we have made in the course of our recorded history, we have always, it seems, remained steadfastly resistant to change. Over a century ago, economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen noted this ingrained mulish trait of our species and wrote that, “The revulsion felt by good people at any proposed departure from the accepted methods of life is a familiar fact of everyday experience. ...The aversion to change is in large part an aversion to the bother of making the readjustment which any given change will necessitate. … A consequence of this increased reluctance is that any innovation calls for a greater expenditure of nervous energy in making the necessary readjustment than would otherwise be the case.”

More recently, Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg postulated the three components that are necessary to force us out of our change-resistant torpor and engage in new behaviors. These are:

  • Motivation: How onerous is the problem or struggle presented by engaging in the current behavior?
  • Ability: How easy or difficult would it be to switch to a new behavior?
  • Trigger: How compelling is the indication, signifier, or reminder that someone needs to change their behavior?

Okay, so people tend to resist change because science. By now though, you’re probably wondering what on earth any of this has to do with your shiny new product that you are 100 percent sure everyone will fall over themselves to purchase. But the fact is, human resistance to change has everything to do with whether or not people will try your solution to their problems.

Getting Hired

In Competing Against Luck, Clayton Christensen, Stanford business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, explains that in order for a consumer to hire your product, they must first fire something else. “When we buy a product, we essentially ‘hire’ something to get a job done,” he says. “If it does the job well, when we are confronted with the same job, we hire that product again. And if the product does a crummy job we ‘fire’ it and look around for something else we might hire to solve the problem.”

Now, that sounds pretty straightforward, right? All you have to do is present consumers with a better solution to their problems and they’ll be on board with your new product. … But not so fast. When it comes to getting people to adopt your solution, human resistance to change is still very much at play. And that’s true no matter how great your solution is, and no matter how many obstacles you believe it will obliterate.

Essentially, Christensen goes on to explain, there are two opposing forces when it comes to getting customers to switch to your product: the forces compelling change to the new solution, and those opposing change. First of all, the struggle must be real. If there isn’t a struggle, there is no incentive to try a new solution. And second of all, he says, “the new solution to her Job to Be Done has to help customers make progress that will make their lives better.” 

But it doesn’t end there: The forces opposing change must be taken into account as well. The comfort of present solutions are a strong factor to consider, even if they’re inconvenient. It’s the old “the devil you know” scenario. And secondly -- and very importantly -- there is an innate anxiety when it comes to trying something new: What if it’s hard to figure out? What if it turns out to be worse that what they’re using already?

In The Change Function, technology strategist and consultant Pip Coburn identifies this anxiety as the “perceived pain of adoption.” This is the customer’s fear -- justified or not -- that this new solution is essentially going to be a big pan in the ass. He goes on to explain that for people to adopt a new solution en masse, the intensity of the struggle, which he calls a crisis, must align with this perceived pain of adoption. The bigger the struggle the more pain people may be willing to risk. But it’s your job to make sure that these two factors -- struggle and anxiety -- hit the right balance.

In other words, you’ve got a solution to a struggle. You think it’s great. But have you accounted for the forces conspiring against people firing their current solution in order to hire yours? If you expect them to hire your product, your solution to their struggles must be compelling. It must clearly remove a significant number of obstacles to their progress. And it must do this  in as relatively seamless and painless way as possible.

And while Coburn’s book isn’t new -- it was published in 2006 -- his insights into human nature as it relates to adopting new products are still relevant. To see this in action, we need only look at some real world scenarios in which “surefire” solutions succeeded -- and failed -- to get hired for the job they claimed they would do for consumers.

Making Change Happen ... Or Not

The Tablet Conundrum

Coburn points to the ultimate failure of the Tablet PC as an example of the disconnect between level of struggle and perceived pain of adoption in action. Introduced in 2001, the Tablet PC purported to be, in Bill Gates’ words, “the evolution of the laptop.” But, Coburn, posits, was the struggle to -interface- interact with computers in a new way and achieve greater mobility so great that people would be willing to overcome the perceived pain of adoption of learning a new (seemingly) complicated device? The answer turned out to be no.

As Coburn wrote, the Tablet PC’s value proposition was “for more money than you would pay for a regular laptop, feel free to spend hours a day trying to understand this new machine you bought-- a machine that maybe one day you’ll find a real reason to utilize once the show-and-tell-your-friends portion of the experience runs thin.”

But the fact, is, there remained a struggle: portability, convenience, and access to all that “stuff” you need on your computer. The success of the iPad, first introduced in 2010, clearly shows there was still a job waiting to be done. The difference? The perceived pain of adoption -- particularly for anyone already familiar with Mac OS -- was incredibly low. The transition from your computer to the thin portable iPad was seamless. Unlike the clunky Tablet PC, which really didn’t seem much better than carting around a heavy laptop -- or even a pad and pen -- the intuitive touch technology of the iPad had already been introduced to the world through the iPhone.  Combined with its seamless  integration with other Mac products, this lowered the perceived pain of adoption in a way that people’s struggles far outweighed their resistance to change.

The Not-So-Smart TV & A Flawed Prediction

The current success of streaming media, all-in-one TV adaptors, and internet-enabled smart TVs are a great lesson in degree of struggle versus perceived pain of adoption. Coburn, (writing in 2006, remember), points to the failure of early “interactive TVs,” which incorporated streaming video, menus, and Web pages, as proof that people really didn’t have a struggle with the status quo. Renting video or DVDs and watching regular TV with a cable box, he said, was far preferable to figuring out a confusing interface and wrangling yet another remote control. He goes on to predict the ultimate failure of early “entertainment PCs,” such as the Windows Media Center, which allowed people to centralize much of their entertainment experience from one location.

He opines that the “digital home” was simply a catchphrase chasing a crisis (or, to put it another way, inventing a struggle). “Until folks bemoan the fact that their DVD player connects to the TV with cables, and the TV to the cable box with -- egads! -- more cables, having a centralized entertainment hub in the home is just not critical,” he wrote.

He is correct that the solutions of the time only created more struggles and had a very high perceived pain of adoption -- but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a struggle. Just as the iPod removed obstacles from something people have always tried to do -- choose and listen to music -- successful advances in streaming technology and ways to watch it have continued to do a job in a better way. Netflix began by easing the struggle of going to the video store to pick up and return DVDs by providing a mail subscription; it then pivoted to do the job even better and remove more obstacles by offering a monthly subscription to streaming video. Internet-enabled TVs, the Fire Stick, ROKU, Apple TV -- all these products have helped people ease the struggle of consolidating their entertainment by removing a multitude of obstacles, and all with a very low perceived pain of adoption. Sign up for Netflix, plug a Fire Stick into your TV, and your setup is complete.

People didn’t adopt the early interactive TVs because they weren’t compelling solutions -- the perceived pain of adoption was greater than the struggle. To create successful products that people will hire, that equation must be flipped.

The Struggle is Real: Groceries on Demand

Back in the Internet Bubbles days of the late 1990s, Web Van seemed poised to become the Next Big Thing in grocery shopping. Its premise was something that by now we’re all familiar with: Order your groceries online and have them delivered, saving all the time and hassle (or struggle) of going to the grocery store. Seen through the Jobs to Be Done lens, Web Van wanted people to hire them to do the job of saving time. But there was a problem: The website was confusing, there were limited choices of products compared to the grocery store, delivery wasn’t dependable, and, as Coburn points out, the excessive delivery packaging created a whole new struggle of disposal. Potential adopters, Coburn says, also had concerns about the quality of fresh produce and meats, and what would happen in the case of spoiled or broken groceries. Despite raising an initial $375 in its IPO, Web Van was ultimately an abject failure.

Coburn correctly concludes that the perceived pain of adoption was off-puttingly high; but he incorrectly surmises that the idea was ahead of its time and there wasn’t really much of a struggle to begin with.

For starters, no idea is ahead of its time -- it’s either feasible, or it isn’t. Around the same time -- in 2002 -- the success of the Fresh Direct online grocery service proved that not only was online grocery shopping feasible if implemented correctly, but that the struggle was, in fact, real. Fresh Direct targeted NYC, a densely-packed urban area where time wasn’t the only obstacle when it came to grocery shopping. Many people don’t have cars, meaning a choice between hiring a car just to go to the grocery store, or lugging home heavy bags on foot or on the subway. And for those with cars, the struggle of finding a parking space loomed large in any decision to actually drive to the store.

Not only did Fresh Direct offer an easy-to-use Web site with photos of each food product, it also offered a large selection of pantry, meats, and produce. It wasn’t a middle man service -- customers bought their groceries directly from Fresh Direct. Delivery windows were small -- two hours -- and customer service was very responsive to any problems with an order, offering refunds and credits. Their approach incorporated a low perceived (and actual) pain of adoption in order to ease a very real struggle. And that made the choice to fire the brick and mortar grocery store a no brainer for enough customers that since their inception Fresh Direct has expanded into other regional, densely-packed urban markets like Philadelphia.

Fresh Direct didn’t invent the struggle that Web Van tried and failed to capitalize on; instead, it created a better solution, one with a lower perceived pain of adoption, and in so doing, made it much easier for people to make the choice to hire it for the job of stress-and struggle-free grocery shopping.

The Case of Chromebook

You’d be hard pressed to find an institution with more resistance to large-scale change than the the public school system, partly due to very practical considerations regarding the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in changing the way things are done. So when the school system adopts something new on a nationwide scale, it’s a pretty good indication that you’re looking at an easy-to-adopt solution to a very real struggle.

Enter Chromebook. According to one estimate, over the last two years Chromebooks have risen to over 77 percent of computing spending in all districts, smashing sales of iPads and PCs in the education market. Indeed, until 2014, most school systems used iPads and laptop PCs in the classroom. But there were inherent problems and struggles with this. To name a few, iPads are expensive to replace, and they are single-user devices, meaning each student must have his or her own dedicated (relatively expensive) iPad. PCs, meanwhile, tend to slow down and get sluggish with use over time, as well having virus and security issues.

Chromebooks not only overcome these obstacles, they have a very low perceived pain of adoption. They cost as little as $200 (compared to iPad’s $400+ price tag); Chrome OS is a cloud-based platform which supports multi-student use per device; they’re intuitive and easy-to-use; they don’t get viruses; and set up is a snap. Just log in with a Google account and you’re ready to go.

Chromebooks effectively overcame the school system’s inherent anxiety and resistance to change by removing obstacles with little-to-no-pain of adoption, and as a result a majority of school systems have hired them and fired the iPad and the PC.

Make Them Hire You

So what’s the lesson to be learned from these successes and failures? Well, if you really want people to fire their existing solutions and become the product they hire over and over again, ask yourself:

  • Is the struggle you perceive real?
  • If it is, is your solution better than what people are using now?
  • Does your solution have a low perceived pain of adoption? In other words:
  • Is the difficulty in adoption commensurate with the level of struggle?
  • Is it relatively easy to understand how to use your product? Is set up onerous? How could you make it seem easier, or more fun, or more rewarding? If it’s challenging to get set up, does the intensity of the struggle justify this? Are you conveying the value of your solution?

The bottom line is, if you want people to hire your product and fire something else, the onus is on you to help them overcome their anxiety and resistance to change. To do that, you must fight the forces that oppose change and give your potential customers sufficient motivation and ability to use your product by lowering the perceived pain of adoption.