We are made to act and not be acted upon: Whitney Johnson

We are made to act and not be acted upon: Whitney Johnson

The word “disruption” is usually applied to organisations — it's what Airbnb did to the hotel industry and Uber to the taxis. Today, COVID-19 is disrupting these disruptors. Whitney Johnson, one of the world's top innovation and disruption experts, believes that disruption is not limited to companies and can be applied on a personal level. We have a choice to disrupt ourselves or be disrupted.


Whitney has disrupted herself time and again. After having majored in music, she started as a secretary on Wall Street and worked her way up to become an investment banker. Later, she became an equity research analyst and walked off Wall Street at the pinnacle of her career to become an entrepreneur.


In this interaction with Human Capital, Whitney shares how we can initiate personal disruption for our own benefit and lead individuals, teams, and companies up the S-curve of learning.


You have written and talked extensively about how the best way to thrive amid disruption is to disrupt oneself. Tell us more about what personal disruption means and why it is important in today’s context of upheaval and rapid change.


The idea is steeped in the work of my mentor, Clayton Christensen, with whom I co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund.


At its simplest, disruptive innovation is a silly little thing that takes over the world, as the telephone did to the telegraph or the automobile did to the horse and buggy. More recently, we’ve seen Netflix disrupt Blockbuster and Uber disrupt cabs.


One of the “Ahas” I had when working with Clayton was that the theory of disruption isn’t just applicable to products but also to people. People can disrupt themselves.


Personal disruption is about applying the framework of disruptive innovation to an individual. The big difference with personal disruption is that you are Netflix and Blockbuster, you’re Uber and the cabs, you’re the silly little thing and the idea taking over the world because you are disrupting you.


Why does it matter? Because we are made to act and not be acted upon. If disruptive changes are happening around you, you have two choices: drown in that disruption or ride the wave of disruption by choosing to see disruption as a tool to make progress as an individual.


The fundamental unit of disruption is the individual. Companies don’t disrupt; people do.


What is the S-curve model of learning, and how does it help understand individual career development and growth?


EM Rogers popularised the S-curve in 1962 to figure out how quickly an innovation will be adopted.


If you picture an S in your mind, you’ve got the base of an S where the growth is slow. Then there is the steep, sleek back where there’s hyper-growth until you reach saturation, where the growth starts to taper off. That’s how innovation diffuses. The big insight I had was that the S-curve could also help us understand how people learn, and it could be used as a mental model to think about how we grow.


Every time you start something new — a project, hobby, or a job, you’re at the base of the S, and the growth is slow. You feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, and there are lots of days when you feel discouraged because you haven’t put all the pieces together yet.


As you put in the effort, you accelerate into the steep part of the S, where all of your neurons are firing, and you feel exhilarated and competent. This is where you’re supposed to be and spend as much time as possible in your life and career.


When you get to the high end of the S-curve, you play out that growth as you approach mastery. Tasks become easier. You no longer get the dopamine that comes with learning. You get bored. At the top of the S-curve, you have two choices. First, you can find a way for it not to be the top of the S-curve. Second, you can find a new curve to jump to.


The key to personal disruption is to learn as you move up an S-curve, leap from one learning curve to the next, and repeat the process.


How can leaders visualise their team as a 'collection of learning curves'? Why should a team include employees who are at different stages of development, and what should be the ideal team composition based on the S-curve?


Every person on your team is on an S-curve of learning, including you.


As a manager, at any given time you want to have about 70% of your team in the sweet spot (the steep part of the curve), where your employees are highly engaged, learning fast, and figuring things out.


You also want to have around 15% of your team at the launch point of the curve, where you’re building a pipeline. These people are in the early days of a role and, therefore, ask questions, such as why we do things the way we do. Such questions open the door to innovation.


You need about 15% of your people at the high end of the S-curve because they act as an anchor. They have institutional memory. They also have the domain expertise and can mentor and bring other people up along the curve.


Optimising the mix of your team’s S-curves and managing them as they disrupt themselves will make you more innovative as an organisation.


How can managers determine where each team member is along their personal learning curve?


As a manager, you might have a basic sense of where your team members are along the S-curve. For example, someone in a new role is probably at the launch point. Someone who has been in the same role for four or five years might be at the high end of the curve.


One of the things that sometimes trips managers up is when they think someone who is doing the same work for, say, six years must be at the high end of the curve, and I say to them, “not necessarily.” If they love their work, are engaged and putting out good work, then they’re still in the sweet spot. One can be in the sweet spot for a very long time as long as one is engaged.


We have designed an S-curve locator (available at, which your readers can download and use. The results will allow you, as a manager, to map your team’s S curve. You’re not trying to label people. What you’re trying to do is figure out where your team members are right now along the curve, and use that as an artefact to have conversations and develop them.


How can managers support their team members' journey up the S-curve?


Employees at the low end of the learning curve have launched into something new — they’ve started a new job, been promoted, or made a lateral move. They have lots to learn, and their progress can be slow. There are days when they feel discouraged, asking themselves if they should have taken on their new roles. Therefore, what they need is support.


There are a couple of things you can do as a manager to support inexperienced team members. Number one is to give them words of encouragement. Tell them simple things, like you put them in a particular role because you believe they can figure it out.


The second thing that they need is feedback — to hear from you what is working and what isn’t —  because they’re looking around and saying, “I need a sense of how to orient myself.”


The third thing you can do is value the fact that they are inexperienced. It’s counterintuitive, but employees at the launch point of the S-curve can do what no one else in your team can do, i.e. seeing things with fresh eyes. So when they ask, “Why do you do it like this?” Instead of saying, “Get back to work,” say, “Tell me more,” and then see what happens and comes about.


For those in the sweet spot (the steep part of the learning curve), everything’s working, and they are highly productive and engaged. It’s very easy for employees in the sweet spot to get lots of requests to do lots of things because they’re increasingly capable and competent. What they need from you, as a manager, is to focus on them.


They need you to help them figure out what to delegate and what to say no to. You should also focus on them by saying thank you and acknowledging their work. They’re not the problem child — don’t make them one by ignoring them.


Employees on the high end of the learning curve are in the mastery phase. They are potentially a little bit bored. Stagnation might lead them to want to leave their organisation. As a manager, you need to challenge the top-of-the-curve masters.


You can give them stretch assignments and push them back down into the sweet spot. You can also make them jump to a new learning curve by taking on new roles.


Another thing you can do is make them think about what their legacy is going to be. Tom Rath said, “Contribution is the sum of what grows when you are gone.” One thinks about legacy in terms of a career, but I think it applies to any role. When you leave a role or a project, what grows when you’re no longer there? Make the high-enders reflect upon that.


Up-Close and Personal


Please share one of your own experiences of personal disruption.


I am sharing two of my personal disruption experiences.


The first one is when I was working on Wall Street as a banker. My boss got fired. They would’ve fired me, too. But I had strong performance reviews, and I was pregnant at that time. People don’t fire pregnant women with strong performance reviews. However, I was moved to the equity research department. I’d been in banking, and being transferred to this new department was like a step-down within the pecking order of an organisation. This is how I got disrupted.


However, this diruption ended up being a career-maker for me because I was good at picking stocks. When I got pushed into something that I didn’t want to do, it felt like it was a step-down, but it turned out to be a slingshot forward for me. It’s a great reminder for me and all of us, especially with what’s happening in the world right now, that sometimes the universe pushes us to jump onto a new learning curve for the better.


Another example of when I disrupted myself was in the last few years. In 2012, I’d written the article “Disrupt Yourself” in Harvard Business Review. I was still working as an investor. I’d been doing either stock picking or investing for 15 years at this point. Instead of continuing on that, I said, I want to do something different. I want to write books. I want to talk about the ideas I have, teach them, and speak about them.


How do you set boundaries between personal life and work?


I work a lot, and I love what I do. It’s hard to have boundaries, and that’s something that I’ve been working on to make time for all the things that matter in my life.


I’m married and have two children who are now in college. We’re very religious and devout, so I don’t work on Sundays. That’s one very clear boundary for me. I focus on my family and my faith on Sunday.


What would we be surprised to learn about you?


I played in a jazz band when I was in college.


Rapid Fire


Favourite quote: You can bet your life, and that, and twice its double, that God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed. — Stevie Wonder


A movie title that best describes you: The Sound of Music


There are three reasons why. Number one, I studied music in college. Number two, the very first movie that I saw in a theatre as a child was The Sound of Music, and when I came home, I tried to figure out how to play “Do-Re-Mi” on the piano. Number three, whenever I give a speech, or I write a book, I try to make it sound like and feel like a piece of music.


Complete these sentences:


Life is… good.


I strongly believe in… God.


♦ What comes to your mind when you hear these words?


Resilience: Get back up

Curiosity: Wonder

Inclusion: Diversity

With 5+ years of experience, Ankita has performed diverse roles across the entire spectrum of corporate HR — from hire to retire. She is currently Deputy Editor at Human Capital.


0/3000 Free Article Left >Subscribe