One of Protagion’s mentors speaks incredibly highly of the impact of Whitney Johnson on his professional career, which tempted us to do further research on her ideas and approach. We were delighted to learn that she has applied the techniques of disruptive innovation to careers.
Disruptive innovation is the concept championed by Clayton Christensen. I vividly recall reading his seminal work on this while on holiday a number of years ago: "The Innovator’s Dilemma"*, and would heartily recommend it to those interested in strategy and innovation. A disruptive innovation is defined as a low-end or new market innovation that ultimately overturns an industry, with Netflix a commonly-cited modern example.
It is an interesting thought experiment to consider the workplace as an ecosystem of incumbents (established employees) and innovators/disruptors (new joiners). Whitney herself says: “The theory of disruption that we apply to products actually also applies to people”, and she is a firm believer that pivots in our own career paths “dramatically improve [our] chances of finding financial, social, and emotional success”
Core is the concept of the learning curve, a graphical representation similar to the curve of diffusion or adoption. It starts from no knowledge, recognising that growth is slow to start, before everything falls into place and your enjoyment significantly increases. Later, growth slows and begins to plateau. A similar model can be applied to other situations, including salary growth over a professional career.
Read more to see what forces lead to this curve shape, learn about other related models of expertise, consider how you can use this model as a manager, get Whitney’s tips for disrupting yourself, and see whose personal stories of career changes she profiled in a Harvard Business Review article.
The S-curve model is indeed a helpful one in a personal learning context. Within my own profession, I also think of the S-curve for products or propositions – for example newly launched offerings that are gaining traction and established propositions that require ongoing management. It builds on Everett Rogers’ work on the diffusion of innovations, which is widely used in marketing contexts too. That theory looks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread. Within it, the categories of adopters are innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards, and it uses a bell curve to represent these. For the statisticians among us, that curve is the probability density function equivalent of the S-curve cumulative distribution function…
Applying it to learning, Whitney describes the dynamics as follows: “As we look to develop competence within a new domain of expertise, moving up a personal learning curve, initially progress is slow. But through deliberate practice, we gain traction, entering into a virtuous cycle that propels us into a sweet spot of accelerating competence and confidence. Then, as we approach mastery, the vicious cycle commences: the more habitual what we are doing becomes, the less we enjoy the ‘feel good’ effects of learning: these two cycles constitute the S-curve.”
She also explains that we should expect to be at the bottom of the curve, feeling incompetent, before the tipping point, for about six months, and highlights that our questions at this time about why things are done the way they are can open the door to innovation. She says we’re then likely to spend two-to-three years in the high-growth part. In addition, Whitney advises that we “start developing new skills way in advance of plateauing on [our] existing ones”.
We note too that elements of this model remind us of other learning and leadership models, reinforcing their applicability. For example, the virtuous cycle above is similar to Jim Collins’ concept of the flywheel (within the context of Good to Great companies). And the dimensions of competence and confidence share similarities to the Situational Leadership model – see below for more detail on it.
These parallels are particularly timely for Protagion as over the course of the quarter, we’ve been advising a corporate client on the skills of one of their technical teams. Whitney’s ideas resonate in the context of developing the professionals, who given their backgrounds, are largely task-focused and detailed by nature. The team also contains a number of experts, who have largely built up this expertise by virtue of the time they’ve spent in the team working on their specialism. Some of the work we’ve done with this team includes:
More on Situational Leadership
Situational Leadership Theory was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, and makes the case that the most successful leaders are those who adapt their leadership style. The style should be adapted to the performance readiness (ability and willingness) of the individual or group for the task or function that needs to be accomplished. It identifies four leadership styles: Directing, Coaching, Supporting, and Delegating. Someone new to a task will likely be highly motivated/confident but have low competence in that task – a directing style is best in these circumstances. Over time, as the individual realises the extent of what they still need to learn, their confidence naturally dips, and a coaching style works best, both encouraging and providing direction. Once their competence accelerates, the leader can transition across to a supporting style, acting as a sounding board whenever the individual encounters something unusual or needs encouragement. When they are highly competent in and highly committed to a task, a delegating style is appropriate.
More on Levels of Expertise
While Protagion used a simplified approach to represent levels of expertise above (i.e. rookie, solid or guru), the main work on this subject is the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition (1980). Within this model, there are five skill levels: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, Master. As you’d expect, the Novice stage is the first level of skill acquisition, where they are just getting started in the skill and have little familiarity with it. Novices need clear instructions on how to do something in order to do it, so they rely on others’ recipes and rules to perform a task using the skill.
Once a Novice can start to diagnose their challenges and work on their own, applying more contextual awareness of which recipes to use, they become an Advanced Beginner. They can identify what’s different about a situation, and use that knowledge to apply different guidelines to solve the challenge. When they begin to develop and apply their own situational rules to select possible approaches to use, they have moved to Competent – they have a better sense of what’s relevant in a given situation. And, if they use their failures as inputs to improve their decision-making, rather than becoming too disheartened by the complexity (e.g. pedalling, balancing, steering all at the same time), they start to move towards Proficient.
While the Competent have to develop or find rules for what to do in a given circumstance, the Proficient have an intuitive sense of what the goal should be, but not necessarily exactly how to do it. And, moving to Master level is achieved by further developing this intuition until they operate fully by it, knowing what the goal should be, what to do, and what result to expect. Given Masters are running on intuition, they will find it hard explaining rules or steps to others.
Another perspective on this (from 1998) can be found here. This essay focuses on software engineering, and the author’s dry sense of humour comes through. It makes the case that there are “actually seven stages of expertise through which a person may pass on the journey from total ignorance to world-class knowledge… With devastating acumen we numbered these seven stages Stages 1 through 7. (We also gave them names: Innocent, Exposed, Apprentice, Practitioner, Journeyman, Master and Expert.)”
Applying the Learning Curve as a Manager
Returning to Whitney’s suggestions, we see that she has expanded her initial thinking on the learning curve to team situations, and offers advice to managers:
Whitney also talks about institutional rotation programmes. We’ve worked for organisations with rotation programmes and ones without, and fully agree that when these programmes are institutionalised, it is much easier for individuals to jump successfully into new areas, and learn new skills, and by extension, much easier for their managers as it is significantly lower risk.
I believe that disruption can also work on a personal level, not just for entrepreneurs who launch
Another thought from Whitney on developing your team members: “As a manager and a boss, one of the best things you can do for your people is have their back and make it safe for them to fail… [by] managing your manager.” She suggests speaking to your seniors in probabilities, so that it is clear there is a range of possible outcomes, and that your team is taking a calculated risk that you hope will succeed, but it may not. Part of this is seeing things as experiments, and hence learning opportunities for the business i.e. failure gives the business new insights.
In a personal career context, it is important to be alert to changing dynamics, and be willing to change course to keep learning and/or keep relevant. Whitney highlights: “As you continue to improve along the dimensions of performance that the employment market has historically valued, you risk overshooting demands. What you do reliably, if not brilliantly well, can be done just as effectively by many peers – and perhaps more swiftly and affordably by up-and-comers.”
In situations where disruption is required, she suggests the following tips for disrupting yourself:
1) Target a need that can be met more effectively: what problems need to be solved?
2) Identify your disruptive strengths: what do you do well that most others can’t?
3) Step back or sideways in order to grow: avoid stalling at the top of an S-curve by jumping to a new role, industry or type of organisation to put yourself on a different growth trajectory
4) Let your strategy emerge: take a step forward, gather feedback, and adapt accordingly i.e. be discovery-driven and iterate
She also advises thinking about new opportunities as experiments, and being willing to fail as this allows you to make more risks. It is also important to prepare before jumping curves and manage your own and others’ expectations e.g. talk about things in terms of probabilities, and what you might learn from them. Using the discovery-driven approach, preparation may include reflecting on what needs to be true in order for you to be comfortable to jump: what information do you need, how much money do you need, whose agreement do you need e.g. spouse?
Whitney highlights though that jumping curves is not always the best approach: “If the path that you’re on will get you there with some minor tweaking and gradual improvement, that’s what we call a sustaining innovation path, just keep going, keep doing what you’re doing”. In a corporate context, a sustaining innovation is when a company gets better at what it’s already doing and provides more value to existing customers.
She sets out four questions to figure out if you’re on the right curve and should persist, even if it feels incredibly tough:
1) Am I playing where no-one else is playing?
2) Are I playing to my distinctive strengths?
3) Is it hard but not debilitating?
4) Am I gaining momentum?
Personal stories of disruption
And, for those of you interested in reading stories of people who’ve undergone career changes and developed “cross-functional fluency”, see Whitney’s article in the Harvard Business Review at
Three additional stories are shared on Whitney’s blog at https://whitneyjohnson.com/hbr-dream-disrupt-yourself/
For more stories of disruptors, see Whitney’s “Disrupt Yourself” podcast at https://whitneyjohnson.com/disrupt-yourself-podcast/
The most overlooked economic engine is you. If you really want to move the world forward, you need to innovate on the inside – and disrupt yourself.”
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