Tell us about your S Curve of Learning——and the popular theory behind it.
Sociologist E. M. Rogers introduced the S Curve in his 1962 PhD dissertation as a way to help us understand how disruptive ideas and products take hold in society. As he showed, the initial rollout is slow, represented by the base of the S; if adoption reaches 10 to 15 per cent, what had been considered ‘novel’ will now be considered ‘worthy of imitation’. This is the tipping point of the S Curve; and beyond it, the diffusion of an idea can be impossible to halt. Adoption is rapid through the steep back-of-the-S (the ‘sweet spot’), until about 90 per cent saturation is achieved. Then — with little room left to influence change — the pace of adoption slows dramatically.
My big aha moment came when I realized that we could also use the S Curve to understand how people learn and grow. Once we select any new job, task or challenge, we find ourselves at the very base of the S Curve. Growth happens slowly, but people might get discouraged because it seems like nothing is happening. After they put in more time and effort and start to see real progress, they have to decide whether or not to stay on that particular S Curve. If they choose to stay, with continued effort they will move into the sweet spot — that steep back part of the S. This is where we all want to be: Your neurons are firing; your brain is able to predict, ‘If I do this, that will happen’. People are asking you for advice, and no one is checking in with you constantly to make sure you’re okay — because they know you’re okay. The thing you’ve been learning is no longer as difficult — but it’s not too easy, either. You feel like you’re right where you should be.
Sadly, you can’t stay in the sweet spot forever, because as time passes and you gain mastery, you will eventually move to the top of the S Curve. At this point, you’ve figured it all out, and your growth slows to a snail’s pace. As a result, you might start to feel bored. You need to make a decision: Am I going to stay here, in the mastery phase, or should I jump to a whole new S Curve and learn something new?
The status quo feels comfortable and safe, and if given a choice,
most of us would stay right where we are.
The past 20 months have disrupted just about everything and everyone. Describe the opportunities this has presented in terms of personal growth.
One of the challenges has been that we were all disrupted at the same time: Everyone was flung to the launch point of a new S Curve, and no one knew what they were doing. That was a huge challenge for people from a cognitive and emotional perspective.
Even though we often say we want things to be new and different, the truth is, we really like the status quo. It feels comfortable and safe, and if given a choice, most of us would stay right where we are. When COVID-19 came along, suddenly none of us could maintain the status quo. As a result, the pandemic has given each of us a prime opportunity. I truly believe we are going to see tremendous growth as individuals — emotionally, intellectually and spiritually — because we’re all in a new place.
How do you define ‘smart growth’?
The core of it is this: companies don’t disrupt the status quo, people do. When we commit to the practice of deliberate self-innovation — which I call ‘personal disruption’ — we accelerate organizational growth. A smart growth leader understands that you have to grow yourself in order to grow your people, and that in turn, you have to grow your people in order to grow your organization.
One of my favourite examples involves Patrick Pichette, who was the CFO at Bell Canada when he was hired away by Google to be their CFO. When he was first hired, then-CEO Eric Schmidt said to him, ‘Patrick, I really want to hire you, but I’ve got a problem: Effectively, you’re at the top of the CFO S Curve already. If I hire you, in 18 months you’ll be bored, and you’ll leave. I don’t want that to happen, so here’s what I propose: Whenever you start feeling bored, come to me and say, ‘Eric, I need something new’.
Patrick did what he asked, and in time, he ended up taking over HR, operations and real estate at Google Fiber. He stayed for seven years, and today he runs a venture capital firm called Inovia Capital and is chairman of the board at Twitter. I love his story, because his CEO proactively managed his growth and continued to provide him with opportunities to grow. And by growing Patrick, he was able to grow Google.
Your S Curve of Learning Framework has six stages, beginning with the Explorer phase. What’s the best way to get started?
When you decide to start on a new S Curve, the fact is, it might not be the right one for you. So, as an explorer, one of the first questions to ask is, ‘Do I want to be here at all?’ To figure this out, ask yourself whether you believe you can reach the top of the S Curve. This is critical, because if we don’t believe we can get there, it’s game over. Another question to ask is, ‘Is this new learning challenge familiar to me (but not too familiar) and novel (but not too novel)?’ Say I decide to master the game of cricket. That is novel for me, for sure, but it might be too novel for me to succeed at: I don’t know anyone who plays the game; I don’t know the rules; and it doesn’t fit within anything I’ve ever excelled at before. On the other hand, if I get an offer from another company to do the same job I’ve been doing for the past seven years, that is an example of something that might be too familiar. You need to find a good balance of familiarity and novelty.
A third question to ask yourself is, ‘Is this new challenge consistent with my identity?’ It might be consistent with who you are today — but it also has to be consistent with who you aspire to be. If you get past these three questions, you should probably move forward.
What does it take to be a ‘smart growth leader’?
As indicated by the Google example, smart growth entails knowing where you and your team are on the S Curve of Learning. A smart growth leader understands that we all want to make progress, but we don’t always know how. The S Curve gives leaders and their people a shared language for conversations around talent development. And healthy longevity at any organization is driven by a worker’s perception of their opportunities to grow and develop.
A smart growth leader builds teams with a portfolio of individual S Curves that match a company’s current needs and objectives. Though percentages will vary depending on your industry, size of company and stage of growth, you can use the bell-curve distribution as a starting point — with a small percentage of people at the launch point and mastery stages, and most of your people in the sweet spot at any given time.
Disrupting yourself is critical to avoiding stagnation
and fast-tracking your personal and career growth.
In your previous book, Disrupt Yourself, you present a framework for personal disruption. Please describe it for us.
Disrupting yourself is critical to avoiding stagnation and fast-tracking your personal and career growth. It involves stepping back from who you are today in order to slingshot forward into who you could be tomorrow. This can involve large-scale disruptions like changing jobs or moving to a new country; or micro disruptions, where you change something you do every day in order to move in a chosen direction. For example, if you dream of writing a book and you usually wake up at 7 a.m., maybe you can start getting up at 6:30 and spend 30 minutes thinking about the book. That’s a micro disruption.
In the book I describe seven levers of personal disruption. The first is to take the right risks and play where no one else is playing. For instance, maybe you should take on that assignment no one else wants? The second is to play to your distinctive strengths. We’ve all got to figure out what we do well — and own it. The third is to embrace the constraints you face and turn them into a tool for creation. Whether we lack time, money or expertise, constraints can help us develop resourcefulness and use the ‘lack’ to our advantage.
The fourth lever involves battling your sense of entitlement. Not everyone around you is a co-star in your movie! Number five is a willingness to step back in order to grow. That might be as simple as taking time off from work to consider your next step in life. Number six is giving failure its due in the growth process. Failure is part of any new initiative. One lesson you might learn from failure is that you’re on the wrong S Curve of Learning. And number seven is a willingness to be driven by discovery throughout your career and life.
You believe the S Curve of Learning can be used as a road map for our lives. How so?
Adopting this mindset gives you a clear idea of where you have been, where you are now and where you want to go. It encourages a continuous pathway to achieving your potential. When you can picture yourself moving along a growth curve, you can more easily plan a trajectory and plot your progress. That’s what it means to get smart about your growth.
Whitney Johnson is the CEO of Disruption Advisors, a tech-enabled talent development company, and is ranked #8 on the Thinkers50 list of top management thinkers in the world. Her latest book is Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company (Harvard Business Review Press, 2022). She is also the author of Disrupt Yourself: Master Relentless Change and Speed Up Your Learning Curve. A frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School’s Corporate Learning, she co-founded Rose Park Advisors with the late Clayton Christensen. She hosts the Disrupt Yourself Podcast.
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