Cabbage Tree Adoption

And another chapter…


The first group of use case specialists, the people that designed the software, will be the early adopters. They’re good allies to have because they have buy-in. They’ll be enthusiastic and eager but patient when using the software in its early stages. Get them using the software as soon as it is viable so you can all learn and improve the software together.

After several iterations of testing and development, there’s a solid application. What’s next? It’s time to take the software to the rest of the world.

How can the Cabbage Tree Method be used to migrate a product from the small group of early adopters to a larger base of users? Through diffusion, a strategy for stimulating the adoption of a product into a wider market by taking advantage of the networks of the early adopters.

It’s a simple idea, much like adding layers to an onion. The first adopters of the software can convince others on ‘the next layer out’ to adopt the product. They’re the software’s evangelists. They’ll help introduce the product to the next level of adoption. They’ll turn their friends and colleagues into users, who in turn become advocates, and so on.


The diffusion strategy has been proven out in the real world. The following example comes from the medical sector, which I learned about first hand from John Abele of Boston Scientific.

Early in his career, John was involved with developing cutting edge (or non-cutting edge, as the case may be) technologies for non-invasive surgery. Today, non-invasive surgical techniques are commonplace. Back then, however, surgery was invasive by definition. Back then, talk of non-invasive instruments for surgery would be like talking about screen-less phones today. Imagine trying to sell that.

Because surgery was defined by ‘cutting’, the market was hostile to this new idea. So John had a hard time trying to generate adoption for a technology that he knew could transform the medical sector and help millions of people. As he writes:

We were developing new approaches that had huge potential value for customers and society but required that well-trained practitioners change their behavior. … Despite the clear logic behind the products we invented, markets for them didn’t exist. We had to create them in the face of considerable resistance from players invested in the old way and threatened with a loss of power, prestige, and money.

Smart people who are under the painful burden of outdated technology often resist systemic change. Why? Because it requires them to alter their established ways of working. This, rather normal, resistance to change, can be a huge obstacle to adoption.

In John’s case, he drew on some insights he had gathered early on in his career from Jack Whitehead, CEO of Technicon, a small company that had the patent for a new medical device. When trying to bring this product to market, Technicon also had the odds stacked against them. No one, from the lab technicians through to the professional societies and manufacturers, wanted anything to do with it. So Jack drummed up some interest from early adopter types and came up with a surprising next step. He “told all interested buyers that they’d have to spend a week at his factory learning about it.” Further, they would have to pay to attend.

That sounds like an odd sales pitch now, and back then (early 60s), apparently it sounded a whole lot more crazy. Nevertheless, Jack convinced a handful of excited early adopters to seize that day and brought them into his factory.

During that week, the early adopters were not treated like customers but like partners. They were part of the team. They came to know each other, they worked together, they helped to shape the product further. They became the team. Sound familiar? This is pretty much how CTM works. The users become the team.

As John says:

When the week ended, those relationships endured and a vibrant community began to emerge around the innovation. The scientist-customers fixed one another’s machines. They developed new applications. They published papers. They came up with new product ideas. They gave talks at scientific meetings. They recruited new customers. In time, they developed standards, training programs, new business models, and even a specialised language to describe their new field.

This meeting of once potential customers, now team members, not only contributed to the design of the technology but then took it out into the world and fueled adoption and interest in the product. What had humble roots with a group of early adopters was on its way to creating large-scale change.

John witnessed this process and realised it was essentially strategy, not whimsy: “[Jack] was launching a new field that could be created only by collaboration — and collaboration among people who had previously seen no need to work together.”

John went on to form Boston Scientific and refined this strategy further with Andreas Gruentzig when introducing the balloon catheter to a hostile and uninterested market. Again, he was successful in catalysing large-scale change.


But, on reflection perhaps there are no surprises here. You could have told the same story about any number of successful Open Source projects. Indeed, as John also reflects:

Just as Torvalds helped spawn the Open Source movement, and Jimmy Wales spearheaded the Wiki phenomenon, Andreas [Gruentzig] created a community of change agents who carried his ideas forward far more efficiently than he could have done on his own.

The strategy in all these cases started with a simple idea – to create a community of change agents. John Abele did it with surgical instruments, Linus Torvalds with a kernel, and Jimmy Wales with information. Now we need to leverage these exact same strategies to fuel the adoption of world beating user-facing open source products.

Diffusion works because the users are the community and they feel ownership of the processes and the result. This is exactly what the Cabbage Tree Method develops in the Design Sessions. To take the product to the next level requires leveraging this shared ownership by working with the initial group of users to bring in the next layer of users. Each group, in turn, is empowered to take the product into the world and convince more people of its usefulness, perhaps even drawing them into future design sessions.

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