Book review: Smart growth

I used to write book reviews quite frequently when I was blogging at Strategic HCM, but I’ve fallen out of the habit since only posting here, at the Strategic HR Academy. However, I’m going to try to get back into the swing of this, and will start 2022 with the first important book this year on improving personal and business performance.

This is Whitney Johnson’s Smart Growth which focuses on one simple, but very useful tool, the S curve. I use this model in quite a few of the programmes in the Academy, however, I’d not come across what Johnson suggests was the origination of the tool, which was in a 1950s PhD dissertation looking at why the adoption of ideas tended to be delayed for several years (in a farmer community).

However, I had long been aware that S curves are found in a broad variety of contexts – my favourite example is the Olympics high jump: S curves in the high jump. They certainly apply within business, and here are a few of my articles on S curves for organisational management: The new S curve and S curves in HR.

Johnson applies the model to personal growth and learning (this slide is from a Presidents Summit webinar towards the end of last year:

The book suggests we want to spend about 70% of our time in the sweet spot (a flow state, perhaps), feeling competent, autonomous, related, and exhilerated? And about 15% each on the launch point, grappling with taxing problems, perhaps a little bit beyond our reach, and at the high end, automatically performing tasks that we’ve fully mastered.

Most of the book focuses on how individuals can progress through six stages of a S curve in order to disrupt themselves and provide new disruptive opportunities for their companies. This is interesting for me for a few different reasons…

Firstly, I agree with Johnson that companies don’t disrupt, people do – your future self is the upstart, so you have to disrupt yourself. Companies will develop and progress through S curves successfully when their people are taking on this approach themselves. She suggests that “smart growth leaders:

  • understands that we all want to make progress, but don’t always know how
  • gives people the power to make progress by helping them navigate the entire growth cycle – of S Curve of Learning – from the launch point to sweet spot to mastery
  • builds teams with a portfolio of individual S Curves that match a company’s current needs and objectives.”

Working independently, this is perhaps easier to see and apply. But I don’t agree with Johnson that failure to do so is about fear of change. It’s more linked to intertia, momentum, and Clayton Christensen’s innovator’s dilemma, ie the need to cannibalise yourself. The Academy is a perfect example – something I thought about every time I commuted into London to deliver face-to-face training, but which I never got time to focus on, until the pandemic forced me to do this.

However, I like and agree with the suggestion in the book that employees need to try and do the same thing with their jobs as well:

  1. explore an idea for disrupting your job
  2. test the idea
  3. sell senior executives on the change you have in mind.

Secondly, I’ve been posting recently on the need for organisations to think about a second, people-centric value chain which is about the value that individuals receive from their employment. I think Johnson is right that this is really about helping individuals through their own S curve, based on competence, autonomy and relatedness. I’d even subconsciously presented this second value chain (shown in darker blue at the top of this slide) as a a sort of S curve!:

One of Johnson’s final suggestions is that even when we take responsibility for our own growth, without a growth-friendly ecosystem, little is likely to happen. This ecosystem is part of what I’m trying to create in the Academy as well.

Jon Ingham

HR Strategist, Trainer, Learning Facilitator at the Jon Ingham Strategic HR Academy

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