Innovation Resistance

economic functional traditions usage patterns norms opposition perceived image physical postponement social rejection resistance

The Big Picture…

Customer resistance to innovation is usually one of the greatest risks to innovation (Heidenreich & Kraemer). Yet we rarely see it addressed. Even the standard theories of adoption/diffusion don’t delve into resistance. We learn that all innovation is good, we just need to get adopters to see that.

But what is resistance? Firstly, it is not the opposite of adoption. Rather, adoption comes only after removing resistance. Therefore we should update Roger’s adoption decision process to show this.

Where Resistance fits in Roger’s Innovation Decision step

And it turns out there is a hierarchy of resistance, ranging from postponing adoption through rejecting and onto to actively opposing the innovation.

And behind each type of resistance there are several contributing factors. There are perceptions of physical, economic, functional and social risk. Whether the innovation goes against Traditions & Norms; is different to current Usage Patterns; or misaligns with perceived images.

Just look at the reactions to the first version of Google glass for a recent example of resistance.


We need to build minimising resistance into our innovation activities. And do so before launch. As well as observe for unexpected resistance after launch. Sometimes it’s as easy as getting the adopter to add an egg…

The Idea

Innovation resistance – users postponing, rejecting, or even objecting/demonstrating against – is the sadly neglected child.

We are all familiar with its sisters: diffusion and adoption. Yet, we see innovations failing again and again. And not addressing innovation resistance is a candidate for why this is so. As well as for why 94% of executives are disappointed with innovation performance. Why? Well, to get adoption, we have to:

  1. address Rogers’ classic adoption variables, and
  2. remove resistance (opposition, rejection and postponement) to the innovation

Too often, we only see and address point 1. Yet:

  • “innovation resistance seems to be a normal, instinctive response of consumers” (Sheth and Ram, 1989)
  • customer resistance is usually one of the most significant risks to innovation (Heidenreich & Kraemer, 2015).

Users’ rejection of Google Glass is perhaps a well-known example of innovation resistance. But we also once resisted printing presses, coffee and fridges.

In this article, we look at innovation resistance and why it occurs. Overcoming resistance is the topic of this [link to come] article.

Let’s jump straight in by thinking about what is resistance.

What is resistance?

Spend only a short time in the world of innovation, and you will come across several innovation essentials. Such as adoption and diffusion, and how to be aware of different adopter types, altering our adoption strategies to match. We assume any innovation is a positive thing, and so the challenges are only to get people to find out about it. And to start using it.

We rarely discuss, or perhaps are aware of, is resistance to innovation or how to minimise and overcome that resistance. We can define innovation resistance as:

Resistance to innovation is when users actively decide not to adopt the innovation (for reasons other than value).

And we find that innovation resistance comes in a hierarchy, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Innovation Resistance Hierarchy

I’m going to lean on Kleijnan et al.’s paper “An exploration of consumer resistance to innovation and its antecedents” for definitions. Since they reviewed and synthesised numerous articles.

And for examples, I can recommend Sanchez, Williams and Andreu’s “Customer Resistance to Tourism Innovations: Entrepreneurs’ Understanding and Management Strategies“. It contains a lot of reflections from 57 entrepreneurs in the tourism industry on customer resistance (both business to consumer, and business to business). Also, Juma’s book, “Innovation and its Enemies: Why people resist new technologies“, looks at 600 years of innovation resistance.

Of course, the best resistance is no resistance. But let’s jump in with the next best, postponement.


Maybe you can see the value of a particular innovation, and it interests you. But you feel circumstances need to change/improve before you can adopt. In such a case, you are postponing.

We can see this postponement happening (in 2019) with electric cars. Many customers can see the value of them. Such as reducing environmental impact, for example. But, the current ranges and convenience of recharging are not yet at a mass adoption level. Rogers’ innovator and early adopter types have adopted them. And perhaps you could argue the early majority is getting involved as well. But, the majority are postponing adoption until, amongst other things, the range and recharge aspects improve.

Another example of postponement is in the Sanchez, Williams and Andreu paper. It was an innovation around reducing food waste in restaurants. The value was in lowering food costs and reducing food waste. It is an excellent example of the innovator seeing value, but the beneficiaries not necessarily. And this time it is to do with social risks. No chef wanted to seen as wasteful. By adopting an innovation that deals with waste, they are saying they are wasteful. Of course, times have moved on, and companies like Karma are helping companies sell food to consumers that would otherwise be binned. And there are restaurants in Finland making use of food scraps.

You might even start thinking this last example was a form of rejection rather than a postponement.


We need to be a little careful with rejection as a form of innovation resistance. A customer may not see value in an innovation (or in our terminology doesn’t think that it will help them make progress better than they can now). If that is why they do not use it, that is a decision not to adopt. It is not rejecting the innovation. Rejection would be because of a “strong disinclination to use the innovation” (Rogers, 2013).

Let’s take an example. Most of us are familiar with Dyson hand dryers. The ones where you move your hands up and down through a blade of forced air. They have ecological benefit – savings on chemicals and water when compared to towels, for example. And they are quite tactile to use (enticing). So, in the Sanchez, Williams and Andreu paper, there is the example of a full-body dryer with similar technology. But hoteliers rejected this. Why? Well, it is a step too far from the normal. And no hotelier wanted to be the one owning the weird hotel with the body dryers! Think about that reputation in today’s social media world!

Researchers talk about suspicion of new and unproven innovations, or of a reluctance to change the status quo. A little later, I’ll just call this innovation = change.

At the worst level of resistance, we have outright opposition and perhaps direct action.


Nuclear power, printing presses, margarine, genetically modified plants, and many other innovations have faced outright opposition. And that opposition does not have to be rational – think of the anti-vaccinators opposing vaccinations even today.

Rather than just rejecting an innovation, we may find users actively opposing it. In the extreme, this has been called by Davidson and Walley as innovation sabotage. And it has a long history. The most famous innovation saboteurs are perhaps the Luddites in the UK. Who, during the Industrial Revolution, broke machines introduced to automate weaving.

Let’s now look at when this resistance can appear, before moving on to what causes it.

When do we encounter resistance?

Rogers’ “Diffusion of Innovation” gives a classic insight into the adoption, or not of, innovations. You can see it in Figure 2. And right in the middle is the stage we are interested in – the decision stage.

Figure 2: Recap of Rogers’ Innovation Adoption Decision Process

It is at this point, an actor either adopts the innovation or does not. Sadly, Rogers’ called the “does not adopt” decision a rejection. Which is why we said above we have to be careful with rejection in the context of resistance. Adoption is “the full use of an innovation as the best course of action”. Whereas rejection is “a decision not to adopt”.

Rejection Decision

Rogers’ defines two types of rejection: active and passive. If we try and innovation and then decide to reject, then we are actively rejecting. Whereas, if we reject without thinking about adopting, then we are passively rejecting.

Rejection happens if we have not addressed Rogers’ adoption variables. That is to say that the user either finds it too difficult to adopt the innovation or sees no value in it. This explains why we sometimes embrace an innovation only to reject later. Or why we might adopt an innovation previously dismissed.

Where does resistance fit?

We can see rejection as being driven by “not enough value”, or “too complicated to use” etc. Resistance, on the other hand, is another set of variables. For example, am I going to look silly within my social group using the innovation (Google Glass)? Am I going to be safe using it (will other road users be able to see me: Sinclair C5)? Or, am I going to be treated as a de facto criminal (self-service checkouts in supermarkets)?

In reality, the original set of adoption variables could have included variables covering resistance. Tellingly, Ram (1987) says in his article “A model of innovation resistance“:

Adoption begins only after the initial resistance offered by the consumers is overcome

Ram (1987) “A model of innovation resistance

So we could update Rogers’ process to look like that shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Placing the resistance process in place in the adoption decision

What I am saying is this. To get adoption we have to:

  1. address Rogers’ classic adoption variables, and
  2. remove opposition, rejection and postponement to the innovation

Too often, and this is the “fault” of the literature and the multitude of innovation consultants, we only see and address the first point. We rarely take action on the second point.

What could be the reasons behind resistance? Let’s look at that next.

What are the reasons behind resistance?

In my view, there are two leading papers to discuss when it comes to innovation resistance. First is Sheth and Ram’s “Consumer resistance to innovations: the marketing problem and its solutions” article. Second is Kleijnan et al.’s “An exploration of consumer resistance to innovation and its antecedents“. We can get an excellent literature review from the later, and some solid foundations from the first.

Sheth and Ram’s view

Sheth and Ram identified that resistance emerges for two main reasons. First, there is the potential for high-level of changes in the consumer’s day to day living. Secondly, the innovation may conflict with the users existing belief system. They saw resistance as being caused by barriers. And that led them to the reasons shown in Figure. Based on two broad classifications of functional and psychological barriers.

Figure 4: Innovation resistance – Sheth & Ram’s barriers to innovation

Within functional barriers, we find usage, value and risk barriers. And within psychological barriers, we find image and tradition.

This article came out in 1989. Let’s jump forward twenty years and see how things have evolved.

Kleijnan et al.’s view

Kleijnan et al.’s article is fascinating to read. In it, we find a comprehensive literature survey that updates us from Sheth and Ram’s initial views. And we see the seven reasons shown in Figure 5 that are behind potential resistance.

Figure 5: Reasons behind Innovation Resistance

They identify four reasons as risks – physical, economical, functional and social. Additionally, resistance can come by going up against traditions & norms, usage patterns and perceived image. Let’s quickly explore each of them.

Risks: Physical, Economical, Functional and Social

We are likely to resist an innovation if we perceive it is risky. And Kleijnan et al. found four categories of risks that lead to resistance.

We resist innovations because they come with risks: Physical, Economical, Functional and Social. These have to be reduced for an #innovation to succeed. Tweet this resistance

We might be concerned the innovation will harm us or others – the physical risks. Often this is related to medical/food items and in particular highlights the opposition to genetically modified foods.

Economical risks arise when consumers think the innovation will be or will lead to a waste of money. Something high tech innovations worry consumers a lot. It can lead to postponement as consumers expect future price drops or the rapid rate of technology replacement.

Some innovations don’t come with full functionality on day 1. This is Functional risk. Do you adopt the iPhone XX today, knowing that better, or more complete functionality might be in the next version a few months away? It is always interesting to balance this off against disruptive innovation theory. Where, in part, a market entrant with not full functionality competes against full functional incumbents.

Finally, we have a social risk. Will your social group accept your adoption of an innovation. Who wants to be out with a friend that has a creepy always-on camera built into their glasses? Google Glass v1 failed in this area. However, Snap’s Spectacles has had better success – perhaps because it is explicitly aimed at social photos. Or that it is explicit about the camera being on. Google Glass v2 is having better success after shifting social circles from public to business.

Beyond these risks areas, there is potential for resistance if we go against our usual rules of how life works (the institutions, if we borrow another word from service-dominant logic).

Traditions & Norms

All of us live within a set of traditions and cultural norms (accepted rules, behaviours and actions). Introducing innovations that challenges those introduces resistance.

Does your #innovation require doing something outside the traditions associated with your target market? Or something different to the accepted norms? Then you have to address innovation #resistance. Tweet this resistance

Juma’s book, “Innovation and its Enemies: Why people resist new technologies “, gives the fascinating story of how the diffusion of printing from China to the west was interrupted by the traditions and societal norms of the countries in-between. Merchants from those countries traded with China and the west, and so diffusion would be expected. However, these in-between countries were Muslim and had strong traditions and norms against printing the word of God. By not embracing printing, the transfer of printing technology to the west was interrupted.

Usage Patterns

We are creatures of habit. Doing something different requires effort. So it easier for us to postpone or reject innovations that need us to act/behave differently.

We're creatures of habit. Does your innovation require us to do something different to now? Then you have some inertia to overcome, even if your innovation has a tremendous relative advantage. Tweet this resistance

Perceived Image

Not to be confused with social risk. This is to do with the perceptions and associations in the consumers’ minds about various things associated with the innovation. Such as the manufacturer that produced it (brand stretch), the country of production (perceptions of quality, etc.).

Race to the south pole using dogs?! It's not the done thing, old chap. We all have perceived images of brands, countries etc. Are you bringing an innovation to market that challenges those perceptions? Then you have to overcome innovation… Tweet this resistance

There’s a long history of case studies on how the perceived image impacts innovation (new products). From how Honda entered the US market. Through to approach of Reverse Innovation shown in Govindarajan & Trimble’s book of the same name.

So, now we’ve seen a hierarchy of resistance as well as what could lead to such resistance. Next, we’ll look at how these two things interact.

Mapping antecedents to the hierarchy

As you might suspect, not all factors of innovation resistance lead to all types of resistance. Kleijnan et al.’s article provides a mapping based on the interviews they made. You can see this in Figure 6.

Figure 6: How antecedents to innovation resistance map to the resistance hierarchy

It is not a definitive answer. But it gives a framework on which to have a useful discussion. In use, I would look at all seven antecedents and see how to minimise. To make it simpler to walkthrough we’ll take each type of resistance at a time, starting with postponement.

Why an adopter might postpone

Postponement often comes down to economic risks and usage patterns.

Figure 7: Why an adopter may postpone adopting an innovation

If you think the innovation will be cheaper next year then why buy straight away. Or there might be competing innovations, and so many consumers postpone until a winner emerges. Few people, except perhaps innovators/early adopters, have the will to invest in a dead-end technology.

We’ve already discussed electric cars in this article. And they are an excellent example of postponing due to usage patterns. Until we have a charging infrastructure as good as the one currently for fossil fuels, then we will postpone adopting except for all but those that make short journeys.

Why an adopter might reject

We find more reasons involved in the rejection of an innovation. There are generally economical, functional and social risks. As well as tradition & norms and usage patterns.

Figure 8: Why an adopter may reject an innovation

Google Glass is a good example of social risk leading to rejection (and perhaps the odd case of opposition). I found Kernaghan “Google Glass: An Evaluation of Social Acceptance” a fascinating read around both the social acceptance of Google Glass and what social acceptance means.

Why they might Oppose

For opposing an innovation, we add the physical risk to functional and social risks. Traditions & Norms are reasons to oppose just like Perceived Image.

Figure 9: Why an adopter may oppose an innovation

Overcoming these three forms of resistance is an article on its own! But before we finish this article, let’s take a straightforward example that is widespread in the marketing world.

Don’t forget the egg

Now we will finish with a fun urban legend of innovation resistance and overcoming it. But it makes a nice point to keep in mind.

Back in the 1950’s the Betty Crocker company launched an instant cake mix. All the housewife needed to do was mix in water and stick the result into the oven. And then wait for a splendid cake to come out. The legend has it that sales were disappointing.

Figure 10: Why instant cake mix was rejected by consumers

To fix, the company considered altering advertising etc. What to note here is the mindset that the innovation is great and only needs people to understand and see that for them to adopt.

Luckily, so the story goes, the company brought in a renown psychologist Ernest Dichter to look at the problem. He observed that housewives were feeling guilty about using the product (remember, it was the ’60s). Housewives could not get emotionally involved with such an easy to use product. It felt like they were cheating their guests.

And so Ernest counter-intuitively proposed to make the product harder to use. To leave something for the housewife to do. For example, take away the powdered egg in the mix and require the housewife add eggs herself. Now she is more emotionally involved in making the product.

Figure 11: Requiring the consumer to add their own egg made the task nearer the norm of baking, and so removed the consumer rejection

It is a perfect example of why resistance is different from not adopting.

Wrapping Up

Innovation resistance is a crucial aspect to address to reduce the innovation performance problem. We can no longer rely on assuming that because innovation has a relative advantage that it will be accepted by users. Nor that we just have to address innovation diffusion and adoption.

This resistance arises because innovation means change. And we know from change management theory that change is difficult. It comes in three forms that are in a hierarchy: postponement, rejection and opposition. And they are driven by risks (physical, economic, functional and social) and challenges to beliefs (traditions & norms, usage patterns, or perceived image).

We find many examples of where innovation is resisted. What we need to do is not abandon those innovations. But first, to apply strategies to minimise resistance before launch. And second, to apply further strategic moves to manage any resistance that arises after launch. Addressing resistance is the topics of my next article [link when done].

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