Help Your Team Up The Disruption Learning Curve

Last week we asked the question how do you build a team of disruptors? Disruption is often represented by an S-Curve model, popularized by sociologist E. M. Rogers. In investing, the S-Curve model is used to gauge how quickly an innovation will be adopted and how rapidly it will penetrate a market. The 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 hyper-growth up the steep back of the curve until slow growth occurs again, as market saturation leads to a flattening top of the S.

The S-Curve model also helps us understand the development of and shifts in individual careers. S-Curve math (a subject that still spooks me) 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 we put in days, weeks, and months of practice, we will 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.


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 her voice; it was real. But her 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.

So as a leader you need to manage your team as a collection of S-Curves. Every person is on a S-Curve. You build an ‘A’ team by having 15% at the bottom of the S-Curve. Brand new to the role where lots of stupid questions are being asked. You have 70% of your team in the sweet spot where they are competent and confident. This is where the disruption happens. And then 15% at the top of the S-Curve. You build a disruptive organization by helping these people jump to another S-Curve. If you have too many people at the top of the S-Curve, chances are that you are about to be disrupted. Complacency and boredom will cripple your performance. So when they jump, further disruption can occur. For the individual and the organization.

Saul Kaplan, founder of the Business Innovation Factory, once said, “My life has been about searching for the steep learning curve because that’s where I do my best work: swinging like Tarzan from one curve to the next.”

This is true for most of us. If we want our employees to keep working at a high level, the S-Curve management strategy is key.

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