7 S-Curve variables that deliver personal success

Author Whitney Johnson argues that the secret to career success lies in disruption along the lines of the S-Curve model of innovation.

An entrepreneurial venture is the perfect opportunity for disruption, not only of an industry, but of a personal or professional kind, says Whitney Johnson, one of the world’s most influential management thinkers.

In her book Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, the former Wall Street equity analyst, now author, speaker and entrepreneur, takes the model for disruptive innovation in business – as developed by respected Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen – and applies it to individuals to flag pivot points for a change in career, or even their personal life.

Johnson’s focus is the S-curve, the model historically used to plot the course of innovation. It starts slowly and stays flat at the outset, hits a knee curve at around 10 to 15 per cent of the market and soars upward before flattening at saturation point, around 90 per cent. The adoption of mobile phones or Facebook are two examples.

Disrupting yourself, says Johnson, is about cycles of learning and mastering new challenges in your career. The hyper-growth phase when you’re competent and still learning fast might be seen as “the office dweller’s version of thrillseeking”, she says.

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Johnson has disrupted herself many times. She’s a music major who became a missionary in Uruguay before side-stepping into a career on Wall Street as a secretary, eventually taking numerous business courses to become a banker.

At the top of her game in 2005, she walked away from her career to become an entrepreneur, but her magazine venture went belly up.

Whitney JohnsonWhat makes her so brave? “I’m more afraid of being stuck, of how I’ll feel if I don’t move forward,” she admits.

Johnson met Clayton Christensen while volunteering, and in 2007 helped him set up a disruptive innovation investment fund, Rose Park Advisors, where she was president for five years.

Her personal disruption concept first manifested in a blog about women following their dreams and also in her first book, Dare, Dream, Do, but the seeds were sown years before when a Merrill Lynch colleague scoffed at her notion that she’d one day like to go into senior management. 

“I realised if I wanted to make a dent in the universe, I would have to do it somewhere else,” she says.

7 key variables along the S-Curve

Johnson says seven variables speed up or slow down the movement of individuals along the S-curve:

  • Take the right risks. You need to take risks to move forward. The risk-averse should consider what could be lost by standing still.
  • Play to your distinctive strengths. Finding something you do well that others don’t provides momentum for hyper-growth.
  • Embrace constraints. They can be positives delivering structure that frees us from chaos and disorder.
  • Step down, back or sideways to grow. Cuts in pay and loss of status may accelerate your personal learning curve.
  • Give failure its due. Henry Ford said, “Failure is only the opportunity more intelligently to begin again.”
  • Be discovery driven. If you play where no-one else is playing, you will find yourself pioneering your way to a market that’s yet to be defined.

What’s Johnson’s next disruption? “I’m in a sweet spot right now, putting together the proposal for my next book,” she says.

“You have to step back to grow.”

Whitney Johnson will be a speaker at CPA Congress in Melbourne and Brisbane.


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September 2016
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