CTO Compass

How to take advantage of alignable differences to make change more acceptable

CTO Compass series

If I asked you what these are, I'm pretty confident that most of you would identify them as save icons.

For those of us of a particular vintage, we know they are representations of a floppy disk. As a save icon, they make complete sense to us; they were the mechanism by which you would save your files between sessions on your computer.

However, younger generations are much less likely to know that and have probably never seen one! So why is it that 15-20 years since floppy disk drives were even available as an option in a new computer, do we still use them as the images on buttons to indicate the save operation?

The answer is simple but perhaps a little surprising. Humans have a paradoxical relationship with change: we crave it, yet we’re also resistant to it. We love to innovate, yet we cling to tradition. These seemingly contradictory desires are reconciled through our capacity for alignable differences.

Alignable Differences

Put simply, when evaluating products that we may purchase, to perceive the potential value in them, we need a reference point to make an evaluation.

An alignable difference is one where the same feature is present in both options. This car goes faster than that car. This phone has a better camera than that one, and so on. We make purchasing decisions based on alignable differences and our ability and willingness to process unique, non-alignable features (this product’s unique feature or benefit). When you have no reference point, it’s much harder to discern the value you might derive by acquiring it.

Economists typically describe this as the contrast between alignable and non-alignable differences. To have an impact, the value generated by a non-alignable difference must exceed the combined total of alignable differences and all other non-alignable differences.

Bringing this back to our save icon, saving your work is a critical operation for almost every piece of software. If you make it difficult for people to know how to keep their work, they are far less likely to adopt your product. It made sense to make this a safe and stable reference point. At the same time, you innovate in other areas and create some non-alignable differences, which helps to differentiate your product from others.

Product Development & Innovation

Author Marianne Bellotti best sums up the point of today’s email. In one of my favourite technology books, Kill It With Fire, she says:

Developing new technology or revitalizing an old system is, therefore, most likely to be effective when building on familiar concepts. Reference points create alignable differences that help us assess the value of something new, but those same reference points make the new technology feel simple and easy, lowering the barrier to entry and increasing the odds it will be adopted as well as the speed of adoption.

Software products that achieve wide adoption are usually successful because they straddle the right line by building on familiar concepts while introducing enough innovation to be different.

Understanding alignable and non-alignable differences can inform the design of new products or services. Offering products that are similar yet slightly better than existing ones (alignable differences) can reduce customers’ perceived risk and help them understand the product’s value proposition. At the same time, providing unique features (non-alignable differences) can differentiate your offering and make it stand out in the competitive landscape.

It is critical when you’re looking at the feature set and innovations in your software products, whether that’s a bespoke system within an organisation or a more broadly available SaaS application, that you pay attention to the things that will be familiar to your userbase and those that won’t be. You’ll see a higher rate of adoption and success when the users can leverage their familiarity with the system concepts against the new, innovative features that will lead them to more success.

This is especially true during a software rewrite where employees often don’t get a say in the new technology. Longtime users of the previous software are much more likely to rebel when there’s nothing to latch onto that gives them a feeling of safety and familiarity. It is better to gently usher them into the new era by giving them several points of reference to orient themselves while they get comfortable, and then slowly iterate those reference points away.

Introducing change successfully

More broadly, you can use the knowledge of alignable differences in many other areas. As business leaders, we often must evaluate different strategic options, such as when considering a potential acquisition or investment. Understanding alignable differences can help you compare the options in a more structured way, making the decision-making process more efficient.

Marketers can strategically highlight alignable and non-alignable differences to distinguish their brand from competitors. This can be particularly effective in industries where products are relatively homogeneous, and it’s challenging to differentiate on features alone.

It is also helpful when you’re implementing organisational change. Introducing new policies or tools similar to existing ones but with slight improvements will make the transition more acceptable to the workforce. In your employee development and training programs, when introducing new systems or processes, highlight alignable differences to aid in their training. It enables employees to map their existing knowledge onto the new system, reducing the learning curve and boosting successful adoption.

Alignable differences are not just about saving files or product design. They matter whenever you need to make your new idea stick, whether that’s a new product, marketing strategy, company policy, or training program. By strategically using alignable differences, you can help people balance the comfort of the known with the excitement of the new. This leads to more acceptance and success. So, the next time you click on that floppy disk to save your work, remember – you’re not just saving your data; you’re engaging with a powerful concept that permeates many aspects of our world.

⚡️ Thinking Time ⚡️

In your Thinking Time this week, you might like to consider some of these questions if you’re dealing with issues around change in your organisation.

  • Are there things you’re doing because of “tradition” or “that’s the way they’ve always been done”?
  • Are any problems caused by continuing those traditions, or are they providing good cultural touchpoints and any marginal gains made through replacing them could be detrimental to your culture?
  • Are there areas where I can use alignable differences to make changes more acceptable?

You don’t have to change anything, but it’s always good to review and decide to continue the status quo consciously.

CTO Compass series