Welcome To The S-Curve of Personal Disruption

“We’re all equal before a wave” Laird Hamilton, professional surfer

Last week we asked are your people capable of personal disruption?. Today we introduce a concept that links our capacity to disrupt with the famous corporate disruptors that have preceded us.

Our view of the world is powered by personal algorithms. It is why there has been so much recent vitriol thrown Zuckerberg’s way. We observe how all the components of our personal social system interact, looking for patterns to predict what will happen next. When systems behave linearly and react immediately, we tend to be fairly accurate with our forecasts. This is why toddlers love discovering light switches: cause and effect are immediate. But our predictive power plummets when there is a time delay or a non-linear progression.

One of the best models for making sense of a non-linear world is the S-Curve. This model has historically been used to understand how disruptive innovation takes hold – why a growth curve will stay flat for so long and then rocket upward suddenly, only to eventually plateau again. Developed by E.M Rogers in 1962, the S-Curve model is an attempt to understand how, why, and at what rate ideas and products spread throughout cultures.

To visualize the S-curve of disruption, you start at the bottom-left of a chart with a very gradual and sometimes arduous learning and acclimatization process. This period can be tough, and may even cause you to doubt your ability to succeed. But if you keep at it, suddenly there’s an inflection point. Everything falls into place and your idea/project/career takes off almost vertically, yielding generous rewards. Eventually, though, the activity reaches a mature phase and levels off, at which point disruptors know they must find and move to a new curve and start over.

Adoption is relatively slow at first, at the base of the ‘S’, until a tipping point, or knee of the curve, is reached. You then move into hyper growth, up the sleek, steep back of the curve. This is usually at somewhere between 10 and 15% of market penetration. At the flat part at the top of the ‘S’, you’ve reached saturation, typically at 90%.

Facebook, for example, based on a market opportunity of one billion users, took roughly four years to reach penetration of 10 percent (point A). But once Facebook reached a critical mass of a hundred million users, rapid growth ensued due to the network effect (i.e. friends and family were now on Facebook), as well as virality (i.e. email updates, photo albums for friends of friends, etc.); over the next four years, Facebook added not one hundred million but eight hundred million users (point B).


I believe the S-Curve can also be used to understand personal disruption – the necessary pivots in our own career paths. In complex systems like a business or a brain, cause and effect may not always be as clear as the relationship between the light switch and the light bulb. There are time-delayed and time-dependent relationships in which high output today may be the result of actions taken a long time ago.

The S-Curve decodes those patterns, providing signposts along a path that, while frequently trodden, is not always obvious. If you can successfully navigate, even harness, the successive cycles of learning and mastering that resemble the S-Curve model, you will see and seize opportunities in an era of accelerating disruption.

Self-disruption will force you up steep foothills of new information, relationships, and systems. The looming mountain may seem insurmountable, but the S-Curve helps us understand that if we keep working at it, we can reach that inflection point where our understanding and competence will shoot upward. This is the fun part of disruption, rapidly scaling to new heights of success and achievement. Eventually you will plateau and your growth will taper off. Then it’s time to look for new ways to disrupt.


In next week’s blog we will explore the 7 variables that will enable disruptors to speed up or slow down that S-Curve.

To get a deeper understanding of how the psychology of personal disruption plays out with each individual, read more at welcome to the S-Curve of Personal Disruption

So the S-Curve helps us with the psychology of disruption. For instance if you started with a new job, or just launched a new product., the S-Curve tells us that our progress is going to be slow. This helps you avoid discouragement. Then as you put in the hours of practice and the ‘doing’, you accelerate into competence and confidence. And this is the exciting part to the curve where all your neurons are firing. It also helps us recognize why the steep part of the learning curve is so fun. When you are learning, you are feeling the effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you feel good. It’s an office dweller’s version of thrill seeking.

Once we reach the upper flat portion of the S-Curve and things become habitual or automatic, our brains create less of these feel-good chemicals and boredom & complacency kicks in, making an emotional case for personal disruption. If it this point you don’t jump to a new curve your plateau may become your precipice. At a career peak, there is certainly the specter of competition from below, but just as importantly, there’s the risk that if we aren’t on a curve that satisfies us emotionally, we may be the cause of our own undoing. When we are no longer getting an emotional reward from our career, we may actually end up doing our job poorly.

With learning, our progress doesn’t follow a straight line. It is exponential and expands by multiples. Instead of learning a fixed number of facts and figures each day, what we learn is proportional to what we have already learned. We needn’t merely plod along, moving one up and one over on the graph paper of existence. If we apply the right variables, we can explode into our own mastery.

I have identified the 7D’s of personal disruption. These seven variables can speed up or slow down the movement of disruptors along the curve, including:

The 7D’s is about surfing the S- Curves of your own personal disruption. Yes, disruption can feel a bit scary, but the payoff of career growth and personal achievement makes overcoming the fear factor well worth it. We all start at the low end of the learning curve. The key is to shift into hypergrowth and, when your learning crests, to do what great disruptors do: catch a new wave.

If you can surf the S-Curve way of learning and mastering you will have an accelerated competitive advantage in this era of disruption.

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