Author Talks: All along the S-curve

Nurture individual growth and team development within your company.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Whitney Johnson, the CEO of tech-enabled talent agency Disruption Advisors, about her new book, Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company (Harvard Business Review Press, January 2022). Johnson lends her expertise on personal development and shares strategies for staying motivated on the road to mastery. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What is the S-curve of learning?

The S-curve of learning is a very simple visual model for us to think about what growth looks and feels like. It’s based on the diffusion curve that was popularized by E. M. Rogers back in the ’60s. He used it to help us figure out how quickly groups of people change.

We used it at the Disruptive Innovation Fund that I cofounded with Clayton Christensen to think about how quickly an innovation would be adopted. But as we were investing—this is back in 2007, 2008—I had this “aha,” this insight that we could use the S-curve to help us think about how individuals change, how we learn, and how we grow.

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Every time you start something new, you are at the base of the S. This is what I call the launch point. This is the place where it’s going to feel like a slog. It may feel discouraging. It may feel overwhelming. It may feel impatient. You may feel impatient. That’s because even though growth is happening, it’s not yet apparent. You’ve got this predictive model in your brain. It’s making lots and lots of predictions, and those predictions can be incorrect, [in which case] your dopamine drops. You’re having all sorts of experiences that make [this phase] feel like it is slow.

The second phase of the S-curve of learning is the sweet spot. This is the place where you hit the knee of the curve—it’s that steep, sleek back of the curve. This predictive model that you’re running is becoming increasingly accurate. You’re making predictions and you’re getting lots and lots of dopamine, lots of upside surprises. You’re feeling competent and confident.

This is the place where it’s still hard, but it’s no longer too hard. It’s easier, but it’s no longer too easy. You feel exhilarated. You feel like you’re right where you’re supposed to be. That’s why it’s called the sweet spot. This is the place where growth not only is fast—it feels fast. So you have slow and then fast.

Then you hit the third part of the curve: mastery. This is the place where the model is working. You’ve figured everything out, but because you’re no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning, you can get bored. This is the place where growth is actually slow. You’ve got slow and then fast and then slow—[it’s] how you grow. Once you understand what growth looks like, once you have this very simple visual model to think about it, you can increase your capacity to grow.

Why do we need to be smarter about growth now?

It is a very interesting time that we’re in. One of the things that psychologists have seen is that when we come through a period of severe stress, which the pandemic has been, we are in this place where we’re poised for tremendous growth.

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One of the things that has happened over the past couple of years is, we all were on this S-curve, and then we were pushed off this S-curve. Whether we liked the S-curve or not, we’ve now realized, “Oh, I’ve got this different perspective. I’m now in motion. I’m moving. I have more resilience than I thought I did.”

People are really evaluating their lives, and they’re asking themselves, “Do I want more?” I don’t so much think it’s the Great Resignation. Yes, people are resigning, but what I really think is happening is the Great Aspiration.

People are aspiring for more—they’re not resigning from. They’re aspiring for more because they want to grow. This book becomes relevant because we may want to grow but we don’t always know exactly how to grow. The S-curve of learning and smart growth gives you a map.

People are really evaluating their lives, and they’re asking themselves, ‘Do I want more?’ I don’t so much think it’s the Great Resignation. Yes, people are resigning, but what I really think is happening is the Great Aspiration. People are aspiring for more—they’re not resigning from. They’re aspiring for more because they want to grow.

How do you balance looking back with looking ahead in your learning?

The S-curve of learning can be useful as we look back. We can think about our life and plot it out as a series of S-curves. And I do think it’s useful to look at our prior S-curves; I do believe that no S-curve is ever wasted.

If we look at it, we can evaluate it, and there’s something that we can learn from it. The challenge is if we look at it and we think, “This should have been different, my life should have been different.” That is actually very counterproductive and can become an excuse.

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To the extent that we look at it, we learn from it—that will give us information. That will become a foundation upon which we can build for the future. Now in terms of thinking about the future, the reason that I love this model so much is because it is so simple and it is so visual, it becomes useful.

It allows us to think, “All right, well, where am I now? What S-curve or curves am I on? Do I want to be on these? And where am I on these S-curves?” Because when I know where I am, it will help me predict, or not predict but know what to do next.

For example, when I know I’m on the launch point of the curve, then I can say, “Oh yeah, I feel overwhelmed. I do feel exhilarated, but I also feel overwhelmed. I feel discouraged. This is normal. I’m supposed to feel this way because I’m on the launch point.” That allows me to think about what I need to do to then move into the sweet spot.

Should we really do an audit of our life in this pandemic?

Once you understand this model, you’ll start to see S-curves everywhere and realize it’s a fractal—that your life is an S-curve, your career is a series of S-curves, and your current life is a portfolio of S-curves.

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I do think that you can look at your current life and say, “At work, I’m on a very challenging S-curve. I’m at the launch point. I’m trying to figure out a lot of new things. Maybe it makes sense for me at home to be in mastery, in a place where I am feeling a bit more comfortable, or even in the sweet spot.”

I have a background as a stock analyst, as an investor, and I continually think about portfolios. I do think that you can think of your life as a portfolio of S-curves. Having come through the pandemic, I don’t know that it is any different in terms of using this model to think about your growth.

We are all giving one another more grace, as we are all, in many respects, at the launch point of the curve trying to figure out in the almost-postpandemic era how to move forward. And that, I think, is a really remarkable, notable, important, thing—that we’re allowing ourselves to be in this place of discomfort as we figure out how to scale the postpandemic curve that is our life.

How should we judge our pace of learning?

I have two thoughts on that. Number one is that we can sometimes feel like we’re not moving fast enough. That’s definitely a risk when we’re at the launch point. We think, “Oh, I just want to get off the launch point of this curve.” We find ourselves very impatient. We’ve opened up a loop and we want to close that loop.

There’s a risk when we try to move through that launch point phase, when we’re exploring whether we actually want to be on this S-curve, when we’re collecting both the quantitative and qualitative data of “does it make sense to be here? Can I gain momentum along the curve?” We want to make sure we honor that part of the S-curve and allow it to be in this place of being slow. This a very individual thing, and it’s going to depend on what you’re doing. If it’s something that you are somewhat familiar with, you’re going to move off the launch point really quickly.

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If it’s something you’ve never done before—it is brand new, you have no experience, no adjacent knowledge—then you’re going to be on the launch point a lot longer.

If you are a leader and are thinking about the people on your team on the S-curve, you may think that this person on your team is in the sweet spot—they’re doing a very good job, they’re absolutely a high performer, they’re terrific, and they’re right where you want them to be. But if they are having the experience that they are in mastery, in this place of “I can’t do this anymore. I know I’m good at it, but I’m bored and I can’t do this anymore,” that—not where you think they are—is going to predict their behavior.

The S-curve is going to be very individual. How fast you scale it will depend on many variables, including if you have done something like this before. As a leader, it’s very important for you to recognize that this growth curve is about where your people perceive they are in their growth—if they perceive that there is growth upside—not where you perceive that they are.

How can we assess a team’s S-curve?

We have what we call an “S-curve insight tool” that will allow you to see where you are on the S-curve so that you as an individual may have an idea of where you are. As a manager, you will have a sense of, “OK, I think this person is here.” They can then take that S-curve insight tool and see where they’re presenting. You all may agree that this person is in the sweet spot, or you may have differing opinions. Then, this becomes an artifact to start that conversation about this person’s growth and development.

You can also use this to think about where your team is collectively on the S-curve in terms of how you work together: “Are we making progress in our ability to cohere and move a project forward?” In general, however, I tend to look at this as an aggregation of individual curves, as being able to say, “OK, where is this person, and this person, and this person, and this person on the S-curve?”

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In general, you want to optimize your team with about 60 percent of your people in the sweet spot—this is the standard bell curve distribution—20 percent of your people at the launch point, and 20 percent of your people in mastery. You can think about “Where are my people? In general, I want most of my people in the sweet spot.” Then optimize based on the needs of your team right now—the stage of growth that your company is in.

This S-curve insight tool not only tells you where you are on the mountain of the S-curve, but it also tells you what tools you have in the backpack to move up the S-curve, and it tells you the weather patterns, which are basically the culture.

It measures if a person feels nurtured; if a manager cares about someone’s ability to grow; if a person feels like they have the resources that they need, the training, the computers, the basic physical resources that they need. Do they feel a sense of connectedness to the culture, to the mission, to the people that they’re working with? Do they feel like there’s a sense of resilience, that when they get pushed back down the mountain, they have the language and the frame to be able to move back up the mountain?

As a leader, that becomes a very important audit, because you can know where people are in their growth, but if the weather patterns are not hospitable to their moving up that S-curve, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to make progress.

What we’re looking for is how you as a leader create a culture where everybody makes it up the mountain. You don’t just say, “Yes, I made it up the mountain. Ted is down at the bottom of the mountain, but everyone else made it up to the top of the mountain.” That’s the audit that you as a leader can do; ask yourself, “Are the weather patterns going to make it possible for everyone on the team to make it up the mountain of their individual S-curves?”

What surprised you while researching or writing this book?

The thing that came out for me was the importance of celebration. You’re at a launch point and there’s something that you want to do and you’re figuring it out. Then you get into the sweet spot. Then you get to mastery, and as soon as you get into mastery, you want to jump to a new curve.

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Once you get to the top of that S-curve, when this thing that you set out to do is no longer something you do but it is who you are, it’s important to take a moment to anchor that, to celebrate that, to honor the fact that you did some really good work.

I think one of the reasons that we struggle with it is that from a very young age, something like “I did it” is frowned upon. We feel like it’s not OK to pause and celebrate, and yet that celebration, as I said, anchors it. It also becomes a symbolic line of demarcating the old from the new. That celebration is something very important.

Once you get to the top of that S-curve, when this thing that you set out to do is no longer something you do but it is who you are, it’s important to take a moment to anchor that, to celebrate that, to honor the fact that you did some really good work.

The final thought I will say, and this is something that I learned from B. J. Fogg’s research at Stanford, is that emotions create habits. We want to celebrate at all points along the S-curve—at the launch point, when you do something, even if it’s tentative: “I did it.” In the sweet spot, we want to say, “I’m doing it.” And, again, in mastery: “I did it.” That was a discovery for me: this reminder to celebrate all along the way—all along the S-curve.

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