Whitney Johnson is an innovation and disruption theorist and CEO of the tech-enabled talent development company Disruption Advisors. She hosts the long-running Disrupt Yourself Podcast and is the author of multiple books, including Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and, most recently, Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company.
Leading Learning Podcast co-host Celisa Steele and Whitney dive into key concepts from Smart Growth, particularly the S Curve of Learning, and why knowing where you and others are on the curve leads to individual, team, and organizational growth. They also discuss the relationship between leading and learning and how the S curve can be used as a powerful tool to guide, assess, and elevate your learning business.
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[00:00] – Intro
The S Curve of Learning
[01:41] – What is the S Curve of Learning?
The S curve concept was popularized over fifty years ago by the sociologist Everett Rogers, who used it to look at how groups change over time. Specifically, he examined the adoption of a new type of hybrid corn, and it formed an S—very slow at the bottom, a steep back, and then a tapering off.
The S curve has been used at the Disruptive Innovation Fund (which Whitney co-founded with Clayton Christensen) to help them figure out how groups change and how quickly an innovation will be adopted. In doing this, Whitney realized this could also help them understand how individuals change, learn, and grow.
She wrote an article published in Harvard Business Review called “Throw Yourself a Curve” and started exploring this emotional arc of growth and change, which she calls the S Curve of Learning. When you know where you are in your growth and what growth looks like, then you increase your capacity to grow. It helps you move through the launch point faster and gives you a map to help you grow.
[03:47] – Would you share with us an S Curve of Learning that you yourself are on?
There are three major stages with an S Curve of Learning (which goes slow, fast, slow):
- Launch point
At the launch point, you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, and the growth feels slow.
- Sweet spot
The sweet spot is the steep part of the S curve, where growth is fast and feels fast.
Growth is in fact slow during the mastery stage.
With podcasting, Whitney is in the sweet spot. With the concepts covered in her just-finished book, Smart Growth, she’s in mastery, and now it’s important to move on to new topics and ideas. But she’s still at the launch point of getting the book and its ideas out in the world. She’s also at the launch point when it comes to scaling her business because five years ago she was a solopreneur.
[05:47] – There’s the potential to zoom in or zoom out on an S Curve of Learning. How do you decide how to define the S Curve of Learning ? Does it matter what perspective you take?
In many ways, it’s a fractal because you can say your life is an S curve, your career is an S curve, every single role you’ve had is an S curve, every project is an S curve, and every day is an S curve. There can be many micro curves along the way but, over time, the aggregation of those micro S curves hopefully allowed you to get to the top of a curve for a broader initiative.
[08:07] – You emphasize the need to celebrate victory. Breaking a big S curve into smaller S curves that contribute to it provides individuals with opportunities to celebrate accomplishments along the way.
In Smart Growth, Whitney references BJ Fogg from Stanford, who talks about how emotions create habits. For example, if at the launch point you say, “I’m figuring this out,” then in the sweet spot you say, “I’m doing it,” and when you hit mastery you say, “I did it,” you’re wiring your brain to celebrate the fact that you did something new.
It feels good because you get dopamine for accomplishing what you wanted to accomplish. Celebration is an important part of growth. It honors the fact that you’re doing something challenging and trying to figure something new out, and that’s important psychologically.
Informal and Formal Learning on the S Curve
[09:05] – It seems that a mix of informal and formal learning might contribute to progress along an S Curve of Learning. Do you have thoughts on how to best optimize the “right” mix of informal versus formal learning?
Whitney believes it depends on one’s learning preferences. There’s an optimal mix for each individual, but Whitney doesn’t think there’s an optimal mix for humans generally.
The Value of the S Curve of Learning for Learning Businesses
[10:17] – How might you articulate the value of the S Curve of Learning for learning businesses? What’s the value in being able to show learners the path that they’re on to achieve a particular goal?
Imagine the launch point of a curve in which you’re starting a relationship with an organization for work. Your brain is running a predictive model, and you have a hypothesis about what it’s going to take for you to develop a strong working relationship and to take to get into mastery. You’re going to make lots of predictions, many of which are going to be wrong so your dopamine is going to drop.
There’s so much you don’t know that you may feel frustrated, overwhelmed, and discouraged. However, when you know that you’ll likely be frustrated or discouraged, you normalize the experience and give yourself grace. Your frustration doesn’t mean you’re not good at what you’re doing or aren’t competent, it’s just that the growth is not yet apparent.
And the thing that’s so important to remember—and because you’re working with learning organizations, you all know this—is that the older we get, the more we can insulate ourselves from ever doing anything new. When you’re young, you’re forced to do new all the time. You don’t have to do new. You can get away with doing new never as you get older. So that feeling of unfamiliarity and discomfort can become somewhat foreign. But, when you know that it’s going to be uncomfortable, it makes it easier to manage.Whitney Johnson
You’ll keep experimenting as you’re working together. The predictions are going to get more accurate, and you’ll move into the sweet spot, where you’re working well together and both feel like you’re winning. You want to stay in that place as long as possible. Sometimes you’re going to get to the top of the curve, and both accomplish what you needed to. If you can both recognize that, then you can amicably move on. By honoring that growth cycle, it allows the separation to be amicable because you know that you both did what you came to do, so now it’s time to move on.
[14:32] – It’s not necessarily just at that point of mastery where you might part ways but also earlier, during the launch point. The launch point is a phase of exploration, which could result perhaps in not moving forward.
The disruption research Whitney has looked at shows even when you pursue a disruptive course and you’re playing where no one else is playing, there’s still a 64-percent chance that it’s not going to work. That means that, when you try something new, there’s a two-thirds chance, at least, that it’s not going to work.
Part of the launch point is assessing if whatever action or project makes sense and is in line with what you do and are good at. If you think it is, you stay there a little bit longer, collect more data, and maybe do a simple project—a crawl project, not a walk or a run project. You may build momentum and move into the sweet spot, but, even then, you may decide to stop and jump to a new curve. But no S curve is ever wasted.
The Relationship Between Leading and Learning
[16:33] – How do you see the relationship between leading and learning? What role does learning play in leadership, and what role does leadership play in learning?
Egon Zehnder did a study where they surveyed nearly a thousand CEOs, and 80 percent of those CEOs strongly agreed (100 percent agreed, 80 percent strongly agreed) that they needed to transform the organization and themselves. Prior to the pandemic, that number was only 26 percent.
If you want to transform your organization, if you want to lead, you must change yourself. The fundamental unit of growth in any organization is the individual. So, if you are not learning, you cannot lead.Whitney Johnson
How the S Curve Insight Tool Can Help Learning Businesses
Disruption Advisors has an S Curve Insight Tool, which measures three major things. To thrive as a learning business, you should be attuned to these three areas:
- Know where you are in your growth so that you know what you need to do next. If you’re at the launch point, you need support, encouragement, and training. If you’re in the sweet spot, you need to stay focused. If you’re in mastery, you need a challenge.
- Once you know where you are on the mountain, find out where your people are on the mountain so that you can help them grow. Help your launch-pointers, sweet-spotters, and people in mastery gain (or maintain or regain) momentum. Look at what tools you have in your backpack to make sure that you can move up the mountain. This includes playing to your strengths and stepping back in order to slingshot forward. Recognize that resting and taking a break will help you be more productive.
- Create conditions where people can learn. Look at the weather patterns on the mountain. If you’re a leader in an organization, remember and recognize that you are the weather patterns. You are the rain, the sunshine, and the snow. If you have a person on your team, and they’re not getting sunshine or rain from you, they’re not getting the tools and resources that they need to grow. Grow yourself, and then you make sure you create the conditions where the people around you can grow. Then, by definition, your organization will grow. The subtitle of Smart Growth is Grow Yourself to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company.
The Disrupt Yourself Podcast
Whitney initially started the podcast because she’s always liked to interview people and have conversations. A podcast provides a unique opportunity to find out what makes someone tick. She also wanted to be able to speak and communicate better, and she hypothesized that the podcast would help her business as well.
Whitney still enjoys interviewing people, and the podcast has helped her speaking. The podcast has also been primary research for her book as well as a teaching tool. The podcast is a lot of work, but she can’t imagine not doing it.
[23:48] – Do you have any particular episodes of Disrupt Yourself that you’d recommend for those interested in learning, what it means to learn, and how they can support others in learning?
- Episode 252: Smart Growth Chapter 1: Explorer (Official Audiobook)
Listen to the first chapter of Smart Growth.
- Episode 250: Why You Should Hire People Into Roles They’re Not Qualified For (Yet)
Listen to stories that didn’t get shared in the HBR article “Manage Your Organization As a Portfolio of Learning Curves.”
- Episode 232: Astrid Tuminez: Nobody Is “Self-Made”
Astrid is featured in the opening chapter of Smart Growth. She’s an immigrant from the Philippines who grew up in a slum and became the president of a 40,000-person university. She’s learning embodied, and her story is inspiring.
[25:25] – What else is on your mind that we haven’t had a chance to talk about yet?
We are coming out of a pandemic. People want to grow. We’re in a period of post-traumatic growth. Severe stress can lead to growth. And I don’t think it’s the Great Resignation; I think it’s the Great Aspiration. People are in this place of, they’re not quitting. We’re not resigning. We’re just aspiring to more. And we need to find S curves that will allow us to do that.Whitney Johnson
The S Curve of Learning is a map to help you understand what growth looks like. If you understand what it looks like, you increase your capacity to grow. This simple visual model can be a very useful tool to demystify personal growth and to think about talent development, succession planning, and configuring a team.
[26:33] – Wrap-up
Whitney Johnson is CEO of Disruption Advisors, a tech-enabled talent development company that uses its S Curve Insight™ Platform to help organizations think about where each of their people are in their growth and use that understanding for succession planning, configuring a team, and more. Disruption Advisors also offers coaching, workshops, and keynote speaking. Learn more about Disruption Advisors, and subscribe to her weekly newsletter.
Whitney Johnson is also the author of Smart Growth.
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