The S Curve of Learning
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 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.
The Seven Accelerants of Learning and Growth
Managers need to know about seven accelerants of learning. These include:
1. THE RIGHT RISKS: Become a talent developer.
2. DISTINCTIVE STRENGTHS: Pinpoint employees’ talents and utilize them.
3. EMBRACE CONSTRAINTS: Use time limits to motivate and hone focus.
4. BATTLE AGAINST ENTITLEMENT: Celebrate success, and be generous in helping employees fulfill their potential.
5. STEP BACK TO GROW: Sacrifice short-term productivity to encourage curve jumping.
6. GIVE FAILURE ITS DUE: Let employees take on uncomfortable challenges, and support them through failures.
7. BE DISCOVERY DRIVEN: Shift players on your team as their skills and talents emerge.
Recruiting and Hiring
Recruiting and hiring for an S curve strategy requires overhauling traditional practices. Conscious evaluation of functional capacity as well as desirable soft skills is essential. Also be sure to evaluate any emotional expectations that you may have attached to the new hire.
Hire people who are willing to try new things and who aren’t afraid to start at the bottom of the S curve. Bring in managers who can spot talent, can help people move up the curve to mastery, and who are willing to sponsor and facilitate jumps to new curves.
Look for expansive potential rather than proficiency. When we hire the “most qualified” candidate, we are choosing to shorten the period of high engagement. Plan to hire new recruits—or reassignments—at the low end of the S curve and to invest in their development as a resource.
In addition to evaluating each position before recruiting and hiring, evaluate how your team is functioning before bringing in a new player.
Recruiting from unconventional talent pools and hiring specifically for an S curve strategy means embracing market risk: playing where other employers disdain to play. This is where the greatest opportunity for a real win is found.
Focus on long-term resource development. Evaluate for aptitude and willingness to engage in personal disruption. Craft job postings to encourage a wide range of people to apply.
Managing the Hungry New Hire
The low end of the curve is home to new hires and early-career professionals, as well as experienced and late-career professionals. Regardless, manage all as newcomers to their learning curve. You optimize your team with 15 percent of your people.
Low-end challenges are made more manageable when we can convey to the new hire our vision for the organization and for them within that paradigm.
Invest in frequent, honest communication about what you need and expect from your low-ender, and encourage them to be equally open about what they need from you to develop in their role.
Some of the accelerants of personal disruption are particularly relevant at the outset of a new role. Ensure these are understood and used to best advantage.
Consistent evaluation of the low-ender’s momentum, as well as their fit with the rest of the team, helps address problems in a timely manner and allow for adjustment. It also gives early warning if the curve or team fit is not working well, alerting to dysfunction within the team.
Playing to Their Strengths
To keep your team at its most effective, aim for 70 percent of your people to be in the sweet spot of their learning curve at any given time.
When natural constraints have dissolved, you may consciously impose constraints of time, money, expertise, and buy-in. These forces can help bring to the fore the resourcefulness that stimulates innovation.
Increased ease can be accompanied by a loss of momentum. Provide stretch assignments and the real possibility of failure to reintroduce the friction that is a natural feature of beginning on a new learning curve.
Sweet-spot employees are easy to forget about because everything is working. Remember to show that you value them.
At the top of the S curve, progress levels out. Boredom and stagnation can lead to lower productivity and a loss of human resource value.
Some employees will actively seek a new opportunity. Others may enjoy the comfort of their position and lack the motivation to jump. There are managerial techniques available to help in both situations as well as those that fall between the extremes.
While high-enders (roughly 15 percent of your employees) are waiting to jump to a new curve, deploy them as pacesetters, trainers, and mentors to those at the low end of the curve.
Failure is inevitable. Manage it well, and it can become a powerful tool for progress. Be a force for changing the corporate culture around failure when necessary.
Helping People Leap to New Learning Curves
As with other investments, the time comes to rebalance the portfolio by helping a top-end employee disrupt to a new learning curve.
Most disruptions require management facilitation. High-end performers may desire a new curve but can’t get there on their own. This is where you can come to their AID: applaud their achievements, identify a new learning curve, deliver on helping them jump.
Facilitating your employee’s jump to a new curve requires battling entitlement—in yourself, as well as your employee.
New S curves for people stimulate innovation for companies. Think creatively about how to slingshot your people in new directions.