Building an ‘A’ Team of Disruptors

A lot has changed since Mr T was the face of the 90’s ‘must’ see TV show. Diversity and disruption has ensured that to build an ‘A’ team we must see this as a collection of learning curves. And have the ability to adapt to each individual’s needs. Last week we looked at how we can help your team up the disruption learning curve. Today we look at how disruptive companies ensure they have the right mix in the learning ‘sweet’ spot.


Just as an investor’s portfolio has diversified holdings (e.g., you don’t put all your money into a single company), your team should include employees who are at different phases of development. Visualize your team as a collection of people at different points on their own personal S-Curves. Aim for an optimal mix of low, middle, and high-end of the curve employees: roughly 15 percent at the low end, around 70 percent of the team in the sweet spot middle, and 15 percent at the high end of the curve.


Assume that new team members will be at the low end of their curve for approximately six months—although this will vary, of course, depending on the difficulty of the role and the aptitude of the individual. At the six-month mark, they should be hitting the tipping point and moving onto the sleek, steep back of their learning curve. During this second phase, they’ll reach peak productivity, which is where they should stay for three to four years. At around the four-year mark, they will have made the push into mastery. In the mastery phase, an employee performs every task with ease and confidence. This top of the curve, high-ender can mentor new team members who are surfing the low end of the wave. But ease, and even confidence, can quickly deteriorate into boredom without the motivation of a new challenge. Before long, it will be time for them to jump to a new learning curve.

As a leader you need to determine where you, your team members, and even your potential hires might fall on an S curve. It’s helpful for each team member to see if the results square with what they expected. If they don’t, it’s useful to ask why. The aggregate results, from a managerial standpoint, provide a snapshot of latent talent and capacity for innovation.

Consider a major health care company. It was found that around 5 percent were at the low end of the curve. This phase is characterized by a high degree of challenge, intense stretching, and personal growth. Seventy-one percent of respondents fell into the central portion of the S curve, indicating that they were challenged, with room for continued learning and growth. One-quarter (24 percent) of respondents were at the high end of the curve, suggesting a level of mastery that may demand a new opportunity to help them stay engaged.

While a manager could be forgiven for thinking that’s a good thing, 24 percent is too high in my experience. These valuable employees have moved beyond the sweet spot into a potential danger zone. Most of them didn’t want to leave the firm for something new. Most expressed excitement about the company’s mission and values. But 40 percent of the employees were feeling under-challenged. For a manager, this is an important data point. If you have too many people at the high end, it’s a surefire sign that you are at risk of disruption. People at the high end of the curve may be high performers, but if they stay there too long, they will get bored, and leave, or become complacent. Companies with bored and complacent people don’t innovate; they get disrupted. On the flip side, a large percentage of people at the high end of the curve presents an opportunity: to capitalize on innovative capacity lying dormant.


By contrast, a leading disruptive company with an amazing engagement score produced the balance of numbers we would anticipate from an engaged workplace: a small number (5%) of employees scored in the lower range, indicating that they may be dealing with the high-challenge portion of the S-Curve and the struggle to gain competence. The majority (89%) fell within the sweet spot of high engagement and productivity, indicating that they are learning, feeling challenged, and enjoying growth in their present role. A relatively small number (6%) of employees are operating at the higher end of the S-Curve, indicating a level of mastery that may require a new, more challenging path. An additional 5 percent of people were closing in on this mastery stage.

To be clear, not all employees on the high end of the S curve will need to jump. While some high-end employees may have fallen into a rut of complacency and entitlement, some may be able to stay in their current role longer if given stretch assignments. Especially in intellectually rigorous fields, where it may require years for true mastery. So long as we are aware that tedium can undercut performance, we can watch for signs that an employee needs to jump.

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