Want An A Team? It’s All About Learning Curves

Most leaders want to be liked and respected. They also want to inspire high performance. Fortunately, both are possible simultaneously.

But it doesn’t happen without mindful attention to engagement. And engagement is all about learning curves.

Backed by more than 20 years of research, consulting and coaching, Whitney Johnson has plenty of hands-on experience working with teams.

And her new book Build An A Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve offers a step-by-step process for transforming a group of people into a high-powered and productive team.

Johnson shared some of her insights in a recent interview.

Rodger Dean Duncan: An A Team, you say, is a collection of learning curves. What does that mean?

Whitney Johnson: Picture an S. At the bottom of the S, the low-end, is inexperience. In the middle, the steep part, is engagement. At the high-end, the top of the S, is mastery. Every single person in your organization is on an S or learning curve. Every organization is a collection of these curves.

Based on our research, you optimize for innovation (that is, lower your “we’re about to be disrupted score”) as follows:

  • 15% of your people at the low-end of the learning curve, where they are new to role, and therefore ask questions like “why do we do this the way we do it?” There’s tremendous value to your organization that comes with inexperience.
  • 70% of your team is in the sweet spot of their learning curve. You typically get to this point after six months to a year in a new role or on a new project. You are feeling competent, and therefore confident. These are your most productive employees.
  • 15% of your people are at the high-end of the curve. After two to three years in the sweet spot, people move into mastery. They know what they are doing. They are masters. They have a perspective, because they are atop the curve, that others don’t. This is also a danger zone. Now that they’re no longer learning, people can get bored. You want employees to at this point be for a year at most before you help them jump to a new learning curve.

Want to know if your company or organization is about to get disrupted? Take the pulse of your workforce. If too many people are at the high end, you are at risk.

Duncan: You correctly say that change, not stasis, is the natural mode of human life … that change promotes growth while stasis results in decline. Then why do so many people seem to resist change?

Johnson: We resist change for the same reason we resist jumping off of a cliff. Because it’s scary. What we don’t understand is that there really is no such thing as standing still. Meaning the top of the S we are on, that thing that looks like a plateau, is actually a precipice. It’s the innovator’s dilemma, but for people. Do I wait to get pushed or do I jump? Do I disrupt myself or get disrupted? My framework of personal disruption packs you that parachute, providing a structure to do this.

Duncan: What is “disruptive innovation” and how can an organization help its people practice it in managing their own individual learning?

Johnson: Just as a disruptive low-end product can like Pac-Man eat away at the market share of an incumbent (as Netflix did to Blockbuster), personal disruption is about the movement from the bottom of a learning curve (like when I started as a stock analyst) to the top, and then jumping to the bottom of the next. To learn, leap and repeat. This drives engagement. Engaged people innovate. Companies with engaged people get ahead of the competition. They don’t get disrupted. They disrupt.

Duncan: What common practices by managers are most likely to produce the unintended consequence of damaging engagement of workers?

Johnson: Here are three of the most common mistakes:

  1. Hire people for proficiency, not potential, at what should be the low-end of a learning curve. It will be masked initially because they are acclimating, but once they do, they’ll be bored.
  2. As they move up the learning curve into competence, and are looking like high-potentials, we become afraid that they will fail, and so we stop challenging them. In the sweet spot, people need more, not less challenge.
  3. At the high end of a curve, when people have mastered their role, and are bored, instead of finding something new for them to do, we keep them ‘right where they are’.

Duncan: During the first six months after bringing someone onto a team, what are the most critical things to do to help the new hire succeed both short- and long-term?

Johnson: First, set short-term goals. Clearly define one or two projects for your new employee. Provide clear budgets and precise deadlines. This de facto constraint gives your new employee something to bump up against to assess how well they are doing. Like a skateboarder who gets quick and useful feedback about their various tricks (in the form of falling on asphalt), the new hire will know X leads to success; not doing X you’ll crash and burn.

Second, build out their internal network. Provide a specific list of people to reach out to. Give them credit for doing this. Introduce them to people they need help from and people they can provide help to. The more people they know, the more potential influence they have, the better their ability to get something done.

Duncan: What are the smartest questions to ask (and answer) in helping a team recover from a failure to meet a goal?

Johnson: Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Why did the failure happened?
  2. What process was not in place that could be improved?
  3. Was the failure a result of a lack of effort or due to trying something new and having it not work?
  4. Is this person or team failing because they are in the wrong role?
  5. Are unrealistic expectations (on my part) as a leader partly to blame for the failure?
  6. Could expectations be managed differently?
  7. How quickly will you recover from this failure?
  8. What important lesson did you learn? In other words, now that you’ve invested in this mistake, what will your return be on this investment?

This column by Dr. Duncan was also published by Forbes where he is a regular contributor. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

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Rodger Dean Duncan

Rodger Dean Duncan is bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP and a regular contributor to Forbes and Fast Company magazines. He is widely known for his expertise in the strategic management of change, for organizations and for individuals. In 1972 he founded Duncan Worldwide to train and develop leaders. His clients have included some of the top companies in the world, as well as cabinet officers in two White House administrations.

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