The Learning Curve Isn’t as Steep as You Think — Or a Curve at All

You’ve just hired someone.
They are amazing.  
At least they were.
Until the first day of work —
Now they seem incompetent.
Why, again, did you hire this person?

Each of us has a view of the world powered by personal algorithms. We observe how the component pieces 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, like when we start a new job or bring on a new hire. 

One of the best models for making sense of a non-linear world is the S-curve. 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. Adoption is relatively slow at first, at the base of the S, until a tipping point or the knee of the curve is reached, which typically is between 10-15% market penetration. You then move into hyper-growth, up the sleek steep back of the curve. At 90%+ you reach saturation.  

Facebook, for example, assuming a market opportunity of one billion people, took four years to reach 10% penetration.  But once it reached critical mass of 100 million users, it entered hyper-growth. Over the next four years it added not 100 million, but 800 million users. We could quibble over whether it has reached saturation, but there is no question, the rate of growth has begun to slow.

To illustrate what this might mean as you onboard a new hire, consider the experience of golfer Dan McLaughlin. Never having played eighteen holes of golf, McLaughlin quit his job as a commercial photographer in April 2010 to pursue a goal of becoming a top professional golfer through 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. During the first 18 months, improvement was slow as McLaughlin practiced his putting, chipping and drive. Then, as he began to put the various pieces together, he moved into a phase of dizzying growth.  Within five years, he had surpassed 96 percent of the twenty-six million golfers who register a handicap with the US Golf Association (USGA).  Though McLaughlin was keen to move from the top 4 percent to the top 1 percent of amateur golfers, as he achieved mastery, S-curve math predicted his rate of improvement would decline more and more sharply over time.  

The S-curve also helps us understand the psychology of disruption, thus explaining why you might question your hiring practices. As you onboard a new employee, S-curve math tells you progress will be slow. This helps you avoid frustration and your employee to ward off discouragement.  As the new hire puts in hours of hard work, they’ll accelerate into competence, and a feeling of confidence. Based on the 10,000-hour rule, this will be around their six-month mark.  This is the exhilarating part of the curve and where employees are most productive.  It will typically last for 2-3 years.  Once, they reach the upper flat portion of the S-curve (around the 4-yr mark) and things because habitual, they are no longer feeling the effects of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. If they don’t jump to a new curve, or aren’t allowed to jump, their plateau can become a precipice.

It’s tempting to want to hire someone that can already do a job expertly. The S-curve would suggest you are far better off hiring someone who isn’t quite ready.  If you’ve hired for hungry, after that painful first six months, they’ll begin to race up the learning curve. As they enjoy the feel good effects of learning — the office dweller’s version of thrill seeking — they will become highly productive, amazing even. Just as you predicted they would be.

About the Author

Whitney Johnson is the co-founder and former president of Clayton Christensen’s Disruptive Innovation Fund, and is the author of Disrupt Yourself:  Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work.  Publisher’s Weekly describes it as “superb, savvy, wise.” You can pre-order here.

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