How managers can build a top performing team

26 February 2019

Author Whitney Johnson told an audience at WBS London at The Shard that what motivates employees more than money or praise is the opportunity to learn.

The writer of Building an A Team: Play to their strengths and lead them up the learning curve argued companies who do not train and give their workers the chance to learn are leaving themselves vulnerable to being disrupted.

As co-founder of the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, Ms Johnson knows all about the process of disruption and believes building a team capable of surviving today’s fast-paced world of change needs leaders to understand the 'S curve of learning'.

Everett Rogers popularised the S curve in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations to describe how new products or services are adopted by consumers, with its market share eventually reaching saturation levels

In the talk, held in conjunction with Thinkers50 and Harvard Business Review, Ms Johnson has adopted the S curve to describe the learning curve of employees and how businesses can use it to gauge their workforce’s capabilities

“Every single person is on a learning curve, so every organisation is a collection of those curves,” said Ms Johnson, who is a coach for Harvard Business School's Executive Education programme. “For a company to optimise for innovation and become a place where people want to work a business needs to optimise those curves.

“The best reward you can give people, what motivates people beyond money and praise is the opportunity to learn.

“A company needs to optimise its workforce by having 70 per cent in the sweet spot of the curve and in their learning, 15 per cent at the low end of the learning and 15 per cent at the high end.

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“If you want to know if an organisation is about to get disrupted, you take the pulse of the workforce. If you have too many at the high end of their learning curve, your company is at risk, because if you are at the high end of your curve you are bored and not learning anymore.”

The S curve management strategy describes how when people start a new job, a new company or a new project they are at the base of S curve, where growth is slow, and despite lots of effort nothing seems to be happening.

Then people accelerate into competence and engagement where it is working well, and that is the sweet spot of the S curve.

But at some point people will learn everything needed about that role through experience and things will seem easy, they are at a plateau, which becomes a dangerous precipice unless they move onto the next S curve.

“On average you can be on an S curve for four years,” said Ms Johnson. “Then you need to start over again. If you think about it, it does tend to happen that way in most jobs, after three or four years you feel the need to move on and keep growing.

"Eager, capable employees tackling new challenges are a key driver of innovation within an organisation, so bosses need to make sure they move people onto the next S curve if they have reached the top." 

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