Lifecycle of a Revolutionary Idea

Many readers will be familiar with the technology adoption lifecycle that describes the standard pattern of acceptance of a new, innovative technology among the general public.  The general population can be broken up roughly into five categories.

  • First, there are the Innovators, the originators of technological breakthrough. These make up about 2.5% of the population.
  • Second, there are the Early Adopters, those who are the first to make the jump in implementing this new technology. These make up about 12.5% of the population.
  • Third, there comes the Early Majority, that 34% of people who are open to new technology but rely on the Early Adopters to prove a technology's worth and applicability.
  • Fourth, another 34% of the population makes up the Late Majority, those who would just as soon maintain the status quo but who realize that they must jump on the bandwagon to keep up.
  • Fifth, there are the Laggards, those who are dragged kicking and screaming into a new technological era.

The bell curve below demonstrates this lifecycle. The vertical axis represents the volume of people who are currently adopting a new technology at a given time.

For technology companies, understanding the middle point - the peak - is important, because technological adoption has a certain saturation point. Once you have succeeded in getting the Early Majority to buy your smartphone, you can expect decreasing returns from that point on as there are less and less people to sell smartphones to.


I believe a similar lifecycle exists within the realm of revolutionary ideas. But there is an important difference between the two, for if we were to chart the lifecycle on a similar curve, the vertical axis would represent the level of influence that revolutionary idea carries. And so the middle point on the lifecycle of a revolutionary idea indicates the point at which a revolutionary idea begins to decrease in its ability to have the impact, effectiveness, or influence that it is meant to have.

So follow me as we track the lifecycle of a revolutionary idea.

1. INNOVATION - When a revolutionary idea is first born, there is a new insight into "the way things work" that requires an entirely new way of thinking from the status quo. As such, this revolutionary idea finds a unique language to express itself, either using familiar words in an entirely new way, or even necessitating the invention of new words or phrases. This new language challenges established thought patterns and interrupts them. There is a sort of element of surprise that is able to break through cognitive preconceptions and present a new and fresh concept to the hearer.

2. IMPLEMENTATION - In this second stage, those who have been willing to wrestle with this new language manage to catch hold of the underlying genius of the revolutionary idea. The original insight is successfully transferred from the innovator's mind to their own, and these implementers begin to find ways to put the idea into practice with great benefit or effect. The implementers also begin to adopt the vocabulary of the innovator, but incorporate it into their own cultural context and repackage it for a wider audience.

3. IMITATION - At this point, the wider audience takes note of the implementers, who are breaking new ground by applying the revolutionary idea in concrete ways. They realize that the new idea, which they previously dismissed because it sounded so foreign, must have some value and legitimacy behind it. As such, they begin to imitate the language and applications of the implementers but without actually developing an understanding of the original revolutionary idea. There can still be a moderate amount of success in imitation, but impact is definitely diminished in comparison to the implementer phase.

4. INOCULATION - The imitation phase is the beginning of the end of a revolutionary idea's influence, but the collapse is complete once it reaches the inoculation phase. The new language has now become so ubiquitous that it has lost all freshness or capacity to influence. Buzz words take on a life of their own and are even used in ways that directly contradict the original idea. Those who have been reluctant to consider new ideas feel forced into embracing the "party line" and become agents of inoculation, inhibiting others from discovering the original revolutionary idea through the inane use of a once-potent terminology.

Most everyone has had some experience of the inane implementation of that once-revolutionary idea of a mission statement. I'm sure many of my readers were once energized by the revolutionary idea Pope John Paul II first introduced in 1983 - "The New Evangelization" - but are now prone to rolling their eyes when they encounter it now, thirty years into its lifecycle. Currently, I believe there are many implementers using the term "intentional disciple" in Catholic job listings specifically as a means of attracting other implementers, but I fear the day when it becomes a job listing norm and loses the freshness and impact that this revolutionary idea carries.


Some readers may question whether "intentional disciple" deserves to be called a revolutionary idea. After all, isn't "intentional discipleship" really just a knock-off of the age-old concept of a "disciple"? But here is a key point about revolutionary ideas - a revolutionary idea isn't necessarily an original idea. A revolutionary idea is, in fact, revolutionary in every age. If it is truly revolutionary, it has the power to impact people in any era. Is "intentional discipleship" really any different than the original meaning of "discipleship"? Not at all. But it is a re-packaging of Jesus' original revolutionary idea that challenges the inoculating misuse of the concept of a "disciple" that pervades much of Church life.

The same difficulty applies to our ability to understand every area of the Bible and the original, revolutionary message of Jesus. The writers of Scripture were not simply writing to express an idea in the most technically accurate way possible, but they were writing for EFFECT. This means that their thoughts were expressed in revolutionary terms to the people of their day. They were specifically challenging the established thought-patterns of their day through creative linguistic devices. But the revolutionary language used to express these revolutionary concepts is lost on us, because we exist in a Christian context that has assimilated this vocabulary without necessarily assimilating the understanding. So going back to the Bible, we are much more likely to read into it what we're expecting to hear rather than extracting from it the truths that remain revolutionary in every age.

There is a need for every generation to discover anew, with a new freshness, the revolutionary impact of the Gospel. We cannot merely rely on assimilating some Christian vocabulary without pressing in for understanding. The Gospel is revolutionary and life-giving in every age. If you are bored with it, you have not understood it. If you say, "Okay, I think I get it now," without saying, "Wait a second...this changes everything!" then you've missed something critical.

If you are engaged in the work of evangelization and you are not seeing the revolutionary effects of the Gospel played out in people's lives, do not grow weary or presume that this generation of earth-dwellers is hard-hearted to Jesus. At the same time, don't just continue business as usual. Find a new way of expressing the changeless Gospel of Jesus. This may require a measure of rediscovery on your own part, of considering a new angle on Scripture, for instance, in order to harvest the original revolutionary idea behind the now-familiar Christian vocabulary. One way that I have grown considerably in recent years is to listen to Christian teachers and preachers who use an entirely different vocabulary from the one I have grown familiar with. I have come to appreciate the experiential language of certain Evangelical preachers, for instance, who have taught me how to preach to people's hearts instead of just their minds.

What about you? What keeps your perspective "fresh"? When have you caught a glimpse of the revolutionary nature of the Gospel?