In the world of technology, one staple concept is codified in Geoffrey Moore's 1991 classic, Crossing the Chasm. The concept revolves around five lifecycles of adopters when it comes to new technology starting with innovators transitioning to early adopters, early majority, late majority, and ending with laggards. The example often used when discussing this are the people who waited outside the Apple Store in 2008 for a $800 unproven cellphone. Those are the innovators. As the iPhone continues its natural journey across the product adoption curve, I came across a fascinating example on how laggards can transition from the final stage of the continuum. This example stems from Robert Caro’s Path to Power which I started earlier this year and continue to deliberately plow through.
Back in 1938, the Rural Electrification Administration was three years into its creation and working their way though the country to ensure America had electricity. In the most rural part of Texas, then Congressman Lyndon Johnson was selling the idea and benefits of electricity to farmers throughout the 1,830 country miles. As he talked to farmers there was significant resistance to getting electricity due to the investment (five dollars per family) and expensive on-going costs to “get a light bulb turned on.” In addition to the value, most believed that electricity couldn’t get to one of the most rural places in the country particularly with the REA’s mandate of “three to the mile.” Three houses within a mile. Johnson did as much selling as possible to get people in rural Texas to believe that not only would electricity do more than turn on a light bulb but that the REA loan would come through if enough people signed up. Signing up required signatures and a five dollar deposit. It was here where Johnson received the equivalent of what enterprise sales reps today call objections. Outside of most people in these areas being in poverty with not a spare $5 dollars laying around, they were afraid of wires. Caro enumerates the objections brilliantly.
“The idea of electricity – so unknown to them – terrified them. It was the same stuff as lightening; it sounded dangerous – what would happen to a child who put its hands on a wire? And what about their cows – their precious, irreplaceable few cows that represented so much of their total assets? They would say, “What’ll happen if there’s a storm? The wires will fall down and kill the cattle.” Or that the crews that came to repair downed lines would leave the gates open, and let their cows loose. “They simply could not afford to lose their livestock. And they were afraid of papers – the papers that they were being asked to sign. The people of Hill Country were leery of lawyers: lawyers meant mortgages and foreclosures. Legal documents they didn’t understand turned them skittish: who knew what hidden traps lay within them? Were they signing something that would one day allow someone to take their land away? Many farmers had the idea that in signing an easement they were mortgaging their property to the U.S. Treasury."
Add into the fear generations prior had of railroads and utilities and it was a very difficult sell to get thousands of signatures for the easements needed for the power lines. The biggest objection: “Something you had never had or experienced – are you going to miss it?”
If you’re in enterprise sales, this objection is old as…well at least 1938 in rural Texas. Johnson was “extremely persuasive” pulling on the heart strings of woman and how back breaking their work was to keep the house – including carrying 250 gallons of water a day from the well for a family of five. The wells were an average of 200 yards away from the house. Lyndon could not get the signatures required so he did what Lyndon did best – went straight to the top. Through his charm and the relationships he developed with FDR’s Chief of Staff, he got a meeting with the President himself. After the initial conversation and ask, FDR allegedly picked up the phone while Johnson was still in the room and called the head of the REA and stated “John, I know you have got to have guidelines and rules and I don’t want to upset them, but you go along with me – just go ahead and approve this loan…Those folks will catch up to that density problem because they breed pretty fast.” That September, a $1.8M loan from the REA was approved to build 1,830 miles of electric lines bringing electricity to 2,892 Hill Country families. In addition to the electricity 300 men would have jobs as they laid down 12 miles of poles and lines every day after the money was approved.
The last paragraph gave me chills when reading it. Remember, the loan was approved in September of 1938.
Still, with 1800 miles of line to build, the job seemed – to families very eager for electricity – to be taking a very long time. After the lines had been extended to their farms, and the farms were wired, they waited with wires hanging from the ceiling and bare bulbs at the end, for the lines to be energized. “It will not be long now until mother can throw away the sad irons,” the Blanco County News exulted. But month after month passed, for the lines could not be energized until the entire project was substantially completed. As the months passed the Hill Country’s suspicion of the government was aroused again. Brian Smith had persuaded many of his neighbors to sign up, and now, more than a year after they had paid their five dollars, and then more money to have their houses wired, his daughter Evelyn recalls that her neighbors decided they weren’t really going to get it. She recalls that “All their money was tied up in electric wiring”--and their anger was directed at her family. Dropping in to see a friend one day, she was told by the friend’s parents to leave: “You and your city ways. You can go home, and we don’t care to see you again.” They were all but ostracized by their neighbors. Even they themselves were beginning to doubt; it had been so long since the wiring was installed, Evelyn recalls, that they couldn’t remember whether the switches were in the ON or OFF position.
But then one evening in November, 1939, the Smiths were returning from Johnson City, where they had been attending a declamation contest, and as they neared their farmhouse, something was different. “Oh my God,” her mother said. “The house is on fire!”
But as they got closer, they saw the light wasn’t fire. “No, Mama,” Evelyn said, “The lights are on.”
They were on all over the Hill Country. “And all over the Hill Country,” Stella Gliddon says, “people began to name their kids for Lyndon Johnson.”
In the span of four pages in Caro's Path to Power a reader get's to experience the vision set forth, the setbacks, objections, beliefs, mass amount of persuasion – all they way to the President, and at the end, the final delivery with benefits through the experience. This is what crossing the chasm looked like in 1938. What a chapter!