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Whitney Johnson

Smart Growth: L&D for employees that boosts business

Summary of Smart Growth from our interview with disruption expert Whitney Johnson on the ‘S Curve of Learning’

Whitney Johnson

“People are not just the most valuable resources of the organisation; they are the organisation.” - Whitney Johnson

Ask an employee what keeps them engaged and ‘learning and development’ is right up there with flexible work.

Research shows:

·       94% of employees say they’re more likely to stay at a company that invests in their learning and development. (1)

·       36% of employees named 'continuous learning opportunities' as a key engagement factor, alongside work-life balance, career advancement, employer ethics, and organizational stability. (2)

Yet recent studies also show:

·       74% of employees said they feel they’re not reaching their full potential at work.(3)

·       Only 38% of employees feel their employer has been helping them learn new skills during COVID.(4)

'Comfort zones are the bane of growth'

Among many challenges of L&D leaders this disconnect highlights the potential for employers to do more to grow their employees. Supporting continuous learning and development by having a growth mindset is among the 10 leadership qualities needed to solve challenges in 2022.

Our interview with Whitney Johnson, author and CEO of Disruption Advisors, explains why it's so important.

“There is a yearning, deep-bellied, to learn and grow," she says, explaining why she wrote her new book Smart Growth. "Starting to coast is a bad idea, comfort zones are the bane of growth,”

Whitney says growth follows a predictable path, which she calls the ‘S Curve of Learning.’ It starts at a launch point, moves to a sweet spot, then mastery as you can see from this illustration in her book.


The 6 stages of growth:

Stage 1: Launch point: (Aim for fewer than 20% of staff at this point)

Explorer phase: This is when you test yourself: ‘I am here. Do I want to be here?’

Some key questions for the explorer phase:

1.     Is it achievable? Can I see myself doing or being this?

2.     Is it easy to test? Is it easy to test whether I want to be on this S curve of learning? (Tip: Start small).

3.     Is it familiar yet novel? (85% of the known and 5-15 percent of novelty to stimulate your brain to change and grow?)

4.     Why not this S curve? Why not me? Why not now? It may not be right at this time.


Collector phase: Adults can be hesitant to consider all the S curves available to them, often out of fear of shame and failure says Whitney.

To stay open to possibilities she suggests:

·       Pay attention: The S Curve of Learning is a zoom-out tool. Create an action board of images to bypass your conscious thought and access your subconscious. “This is what I want. This is an S Curve I want to be on.”

·       Keep a journal. Log the best moments and worst moments of your day.

·       Use your words. Take on your new identity by describing yourself that way. I am a ‘writer’ ‘marathon runner’ ‘programmer’ etc.

·       On probation. Your new ideas and behaviours are on probation while you collect data. Things we don’t pursue can add to our growth.

For the leader of launch-pointers: Reinforce that individual growth is a priority to you. Because of all the newness there can be a tendency to perform rather than to learn. ‘What did you learn this week?’ is a good question for teams.

Stage 2: Sweet spot: (aim for at least 60% of staff in the sweet spot)

Accelerator phase: You’re making conscious deliberate choices about how you want to grow, and those choices become more automatic as stress and growth achieve equilibrium. According to the “C.A.R.” self-determination theory our needs are being fulfilled:

·       Competence: Things are easier but you’re not bored or complacent.

·       Autonomy: Accelerators require autonomy. We have the power to choose and we own the consequences of our actions.

·       Relatedness: Also known as team ‘chemistry’, this is a shared identity and a personal familiarity with other team members.

Try to make each day an optimal experience. Spend more of your life in the sweet spot by spending more of your day in the sweet spot. Aim for 85% of each day on tasks in the sweet spot, 15% on those that are more taxing.

Metamorph phase: The S Curve of learning changes you so make sure you focus on the right priorities.

·       Stay in the moment

·       Triumph over triggers. Emotional triggers can erode our confidence. Express gratitude to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and signal safety.

·       Say no to yes. Constantly saying ‘yes’ to novelty is saying ‘no’ to mastery.

·       Optimise tension. If too hard, make it easier. If too easy, make it harder.


For the leader of sweet-spotters: Don’t ignore ‘sweet spotters’ and take them for granted – stay focused on their perception of where they are in their growth. Coach them on what to prioritise. They are accelerating because of your focus on their growth. Watch for the possibility that your team can gradually, then suddenly, become slightly bored.

Stage 3: Mastery: (aim for less than 20 percent in this stage)

Anchor phase: You are trusted, and you trust your own abilities. Ease displaces effort. The anchor stage is a brief season of rest and reflection before you take the next leap. Celebrate!

“We’ve anchored. We may stay in port for a while but ultimately, we must raise anchor and set sail again,” says Whitney.

Mountaineer phase: Whitney’s data shows approximately one-third of individuals in the mastery phase are bored. To again experience Sweet Spot momentum, we need to navigate another launch point (another mountain to climb).

“Learning is the oxygen of human growth. When learning diminishes so do we.”

Even though it’s better to get off the mountain under your own power, chances are good that someday you’ll be on a precipice and get pushed off. So, remember:

1.     Not all summits are reached. You may have to abandon a once-promising S Curve. With resilience you will climb again.

2.     Descend to ascend again. Be willing to descend and become a beginner on a new S Curve.

3.     Create, don’t compete. Focus on creating, and the effort of joyful learning and growth.

For the leader of masters: What your people in the mastery phase of their career/life need from you is a challenge, ideally inside of your organisation. Turn what looks like a summit on their current S Curve into the base camp of a new one.

The Smart Growth ecosystem

“I cannot underscore this truth enough: We are responsible for making our own life decisions. But we achieve very little by ourselves.” – Whitney Johnson  

The rate of growth and success you experience will flow directly from the wise cultivation of relationships and practical resources (eg. technology, tools) that comprise your ecosystem.

Ask yourself:

·       Am I generously contributing to this ecosystem?

·       Am I a force for positive growth?

Team leader questions:

·       Conducive: To what extent does my team have the resources it needs?

·       Connective: How healthy are the relationships among members of my team? (Could they benefit from social learning opportunities?) How clearly have I explained the connection between the work tasks of my team and the broad mission of my company?

·       Resilience: When mistakes happen, how and how often do they become opportunities to learn?

·       Nurturing: How well do I and my team encourage the growth of individual members?

“There are millions of Mr Blahs throughout the world; he may sit beside, or even inside you. He is quintessentially bored and struck, disengaged from his work and his life, and like many others, he’s been derailed from a path of learning and growth and can’t figure out how to get started again.”  - Whitney Johnson 

References and further reading: 

1. ‘The Importance of Employee Development at Work, and Where HR Fits In,’ September 2021, Clear Company

2. ‘What employees expect in 2021’, 2021, IBM Institute for Business Value

3. ‘The Importance of Employee Development at Work, and Where HR Fits In,’ September 2021, Clear Company

4. ‘What employees expect in 2021’, 2021, IBM Institute for Business Value

5. Smart Growth: How to Grow Your People to Grow your Company by Whitney Johnson

Also: 3 Steps For a Culture of Learning in a Zig-Zag World

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