How To RideYour S-Curves and Reinvent Yourself Before Its Too Late
“If you really want to move the world forward, you need to innovate on the inside — and disrupt yourself”
— Whitney Johnson, HBR
Nature’s oldest predictive S-Curve not only has its relevance in the context of an organizational setting but is equally important as a concept for self-improvement and innovation. My purpose for writing this post is to share my recent learnings about the S-Curve Model in the contexts of both business and self-innovation, help understand strategies to timely ride the S-Curves, share my own personal experiences, and encourage others to make the leap to create their own personal disruptions and strive towards leading more fulfilling lives, and becoming better versions of themselves while making a more meaningful impact in organizations they work for.
Before I dive deep into the topic, I do have a confession. It wasn’t until just a couple of months ago, that I learned of the role S-Curve plays in organizational and professional career success. In the Organizational Behavior class that I took this past semester with Professor. Dr. Paul Green Jr., at the Harvard Extension School, where I am pursuing my Master’s degree, this time in the field of Strategic Business Management, I learned a lot about why deliberately planning the S-curves of innovation is key to an organization’s long term success. I further researched on this topic, to stumble upon this very interesting article at HBR, authored by Whitney Johnson. Only upon introspection did I realize that when I leaped from software development into product management, it was an S-Curve that was created as a result of unconscious thought, fortunately in the right direction.
Without further digressing into my career’s story (I’ll share about this later), let’s begin with a quick primer on what an S-Curve Model generally represents.
An S-Curve shows the growth of a variable in terms of another variable, expressed as units of time. As per Wikipedia, it is a graphical representation of a sigmoid function, a mathematical function that has a characteristic ‘S’ shaped curve, a sigmoid curve as shown below:
What can an S-Curve represent? S-Curve in both mathematical and non-mathematical ways has been a way to examine and gain insight into the ‘growth phenomenon’ of numerous systems that exhibit a natural cycle of growth and decline. For example, this model can be used in an organizational system setting by quantitatively tracking and predicting business profitability, market share, and turnover. Estimates for future rates of growth can be calculated to signal when replacement activities might be necessary to override the declining phenomenon. S-Curves are also used in non-mathematical ways to represent patterns observed in phases of projects, stages of technological and product innovation, where there is a natural rhythm to growth: starting out, forming, flourishing, with an eventual decline.
S-Curves and Business Innovation
What led to the video rental giant Blockbuster’s downfall? In 2002, Blockbuster was valued at $5 billion, when Netflix was still a niche business initiating its IPO. However, in 2014 Blockbuster was shut down entirely. Failure to understand the market and buyer behavior changes, sticking too long to an outdated strategy, ignoring the new solutions and trends, and not adapting to the fast-paced technological world to stay ahead of the curve were the reasons for Blockbuster’s failure.
The below conceptual graphic depicts time on X-axis and Revenue or Product Market Leadership on Y-Axis. The growth and decline phenomenon is very commonly observed in tech-driven organizations, and that can be represented by S-Curves.
When a specific product is introduced, early on it doesn’t bring many advantages, but then suddenly it catches traction and improves. Future iterations yield meaningful improvement and rapid advancement leading to dominance in the industry. It achieves critical mass and becomes a leader in the market. Then competitive advantage levels off and the growth is not as steep. A new product is then introduced in the market but is still inferior to the dominant technology on an important dimension, and then it follows the same pattern. It does not have meaningful growth initially and then it takes off. Suddenly a new market entrant overtakes the incumbent. The incumbent is no longer dominating the market. A Newmarket entrant is almost always inferior in critical dimensions. This is a phenomenon that explains why most organizations die, and this is also why Blockbuster died — It was a strategy problem.
So, then, what was Tesla’s Master Plan for success? Tesla has been able to successfully plan ahead for changes in its business model and jump the S-Curves. In The Secret Tesla Motors master plan, Elon musk very clearly laid out his innovation and growth strategy.
Any new technology that is introduced has a high unit cost, so Tesla’s business strategy was to plan a series of exploitative innovation S-Curves developing zero-emission electric power options:
- First S-Curve: Build a high-performance electric sports car, the Tesla Roadster, that came without any compromises, beating gasoline sports cars like Ferrari and Porsche, and entering the high end of the market, where customers would be willing to pay a premium.
- Second S-Curve: Profits gained in the first S-Curve would be invested in this second S-Curve to build a sporty four-door affordable family car.
- Third S-Curve: Use that money to build an even more low-cost family car, Tesla Model 3.
Each S-Curve is a ‘deliberate’ production prediction — cars' production plotted against time, with the company investing vast amounts of money and resources at the beginning, and as new ideas are tested and efficiency is reached, production ramps up to full volume. Profits gained from full volume production of the previous S-Curve are invested in the next S-curve.
S-Curves and Disruptive Self-Innovation
Our personal growth also follows the pattern of an S-Curve. But why should we disrupt ourselves in the first place and why do we need to find our own innovation curves?
“…if as an individual you’ve reached a plateau or you suspect you won’t be happy at the top rung of the ladder you’re climbing, you should disrupt yourself for the same reasons that companies must.” — Whitney Johnston, HBR.
In the TEDx talk ‘Designing For Impact and Growth’, Dave Power, CEO, author, and a Harvard Instructor talks about how as leaders when we first take initiative on a product or a service, there is a take-off period that then there is traction. But while we are planning for unlimited growth, the ‘tyranny of S-Curve’ comes into play and the growth then stops. This behavior is as predictable as death or taxes. So, the question is — why we, as businesses or as individuals stop growing? The simple reason behind the ‘S’ shape is that, if we keep doing what we are doing, while the world around us changes, we become irrelevant. So, what can we do about it? Find the next S-Curve! That next S-curve would be another area of growth adding value to the business or your career (if we are talking about personal growth), that should be aligned with the world’s changing needs. The key is, to find and grow the next S-curve (while the previous curve is starting to flatten), and plan a series of S-curves, sustaining continuous growth. Dave Power followed the above strategy to re-invent himself each time, first starting off as a civil engineer, doing consulting, then entering the software engineering industry, becoming a Venture Capitalist. Today, he is solving a global problem of promoting inclusive education for the blind and visually impaired, and growing it into the public school system, a pretty big S-curve, driving innovation as the CEO and President of Perkin’s School for the blind, applying all the strategies he learned when he worked at for-profit companies.
Using the understanding of S-Curves, in this new year, let’s reflect on our own personal lives and ask ourselves — where do we believe we are on our S-Curves? And what’s our next S-curve?
“Our hypothesis is that those who can successfully navigate, even harness, the successive cycles of learning and maxing out that resemble the S-curve will thrive in this era of personal disruption.” — Mendez Garcia / Johnston, HBR.
Our goal should be to consciously create big personal jumps, leveraging the skills we currently have, and exposing ourselves to situations where we need to level up and get creative around the skills we don’t have. This is the only way to come out stronger, and more able.
If you want to start your own self-disruption and innovation journey this year, here are a few strategies from this article by Whitney Johnson to set you on your way…
- Take calculated risks to move forward
- Identify your disruptive strengths and play on those to do something well that other’s don’t
- Embrace constraints
- Step down, back, or sideways to grow
- Recognize failure or adversity as an opportunity
- Discover your way in a market that is yet to be defined
I hope this was an encouraging and informative article, inspiring you to reinvent yourself in this new year of 2021, and deliberately plan and surf through your own S-curves to be the better versions of yourselves and adding more value to this world!
PS: Looking forward to your feedback and comments and more importantly would love to hear about your S-Curve stories.