Captain James Cook, the explorer who mapped ⅓ of the globe, was the first European to visit Sydney, Australia, and discovered the Hawaiian Islands, wrote in his journal that “I’ve sailed farther than any other man before me.” Captain James T. Kirk, the pop culture icon of Star Trek, is modeled on Cook, and his motto “to boldly go where no man has gone before” could easily have belonged to Cook.
This is what people want on the job: to boldly go where they haven’t gone before. To venture into uncharted territory. To take themselves and their company where they’ve never been.
And yet, we humans also like a certain amount of predictability.
If given the chance to see our future in a crystal ball, most of us would peek. If we could take off in our starship full of dreams, without ever leaving the dock, we might. When we believe we can forecast the future, we elevate our sense of security. When we believe we control our circumstances, we feel more confident.
But, control is an illusion. None of us know what the future will bring–with our life, with our career.
This is where the S curve model comes in. Popularized by sociologist E.M. Rogers, it looks a lot like a wave. This S curve helps make the unpredictable predictable.
At the base of the S, progress is relatively slow until a tipping point is reached—the knee of the curve. This is followed by hypergrowth up the steep back of the curve until slow growth occurs again, as market saturation leads to a flattening top of the S. (See Figure 1, “The S curve of learning,” for a visual representation.)
The S curve model also helps us understand the development of and shifts in individual careers. S curve math tells us that the early days of a role, at the low end of the S, can feel like a slog. Cause and effect are seemingly disconnected. Huge effort yields little. Understanding this helps avoid discouragement.
As you put in days, weeks, and months of practice, you speed up and move up the S curve, roaring into competence and the confidence that accompanies it. This is the exhilarating part of the S curve, where all our neurons are firing. It’s the sweet spot.
As we approach mastery, tasks become easier and easier. This is satisfying for a while, but because we are no longer enjoying the feel-good effects of learning, we are likely to get bored. If we stay on the top of a curve too long, our plateau becomes a precipice.
Everyone Has an S Curve
In one of my facilitated sessions, a CEO said to me, “Eighty percent of my people don’t have an S curve. They just don’t care.” I could hear the frustration in his voice; it was real. But his claim wasn’t true. There are different types of curves and factors that can affect them, but everyone has an S curve. And throughout a career, most of us will discover several or even many of them.
If employees “don’t care,” it doesn’t mean that they don’t have an S curve—it means they are disengaged. Nearly every human being is on the lookout for growth opportunities. If a person can’t grow with a company, they will grow away from it. As with any rule, there are exceptions. Some are people who won’t grow, no matter how you try to help them. But what about past high performers who are currently underperforming? If it’s time to jump, and they won’t, you may need to give them a nudge.
Think of the leaven in bread: a little bit is all it takes for the whole mass of dough to rise, but let it rise too long and it will collapse. The energy of the chemical reaction will have spent itself. The key is to capture the leavening at the right time, bake our loaves, and reserve some “starter” for the next batch. The energy of your employees is there waiting to be tapped. But they will need to start over regularly. Ensure that they can, and they will provide lift to your organization—and do it over and over again.
Credit Line: Whitney Johnson, Harvard Business Review Press