"This is the real business case. When you are willing to let your people learn then you create a tremendous amount of value."
Whitney Johnson is a frequent keynote speaker on disruption. She was named one of the world's fifty most influential management thinkers by Thinkers50 in 2017. She is also the author of the bestselling Build an A-Team (2018) and Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work (2015). To learn more about the fascinating work of Whitney please visit her website.
Agnes: What is it that gets you out of bed? What are you passionate about? What are the issues that you think: now is the time to solve in the world?
Whitney Johnson: What gets me out of bed every day is the idea that I can make it, not maybe, safe for people to change, but guide people through the process of change. In the process of doing that help you become a great boss that people want to work for, a person that people want to work around and with, and in the process build a great team, and be a place where people can bring their dreams to work. That is what gets me excited.
Agnes: Your latest book focuses on the level of teams. Were there some triggering events or experiences, or working with organisations, that made and inspired you to focus more on teams?
Whitney Johnson: Yes. One of the things that happened after I published Disrupt Yourself, is that I had a lot of people come to me and say: "Ok, I get it, I want to disrupt myself, but I will not let my people at my company read this, because they will leave". Also, I would have people say: "I don’t want to leave my company. So, how do I apply these ideas inside of my organisation? How do I create an ecosystem where personal disruption is possible". That was the genesis of this pain point that I needed to solve for. The whole realisation that this could lead to building great teams was almost a consequence. It is not where I started, it is where I ended up.
I had this idea of how do I create an ecosystem where people can disrupt, because I wanted to respond to the individual, but that lead me to this place where I asked myself; ok if I want an organisation that is innovative, and if I want an organisation that can manage through change than I have to optimize where my people are on the Learning Curve. Then I came up with this wonderful discovery that if you’ll have 70% of your people in the sweet spot of their learning and 15% who are just starting on their learning, and 15% who have mastered what they learned on any given time in a team, than you’ll have a team that can really innovate. And, if your team can innovate than your company or organisation can lower its where about to be disrupted score.
Agnes: The book starts with the S-curve model, which is also featured in your previous book. Can you tell us a little bit why you felt that the S-curve was so important for people to understand?
Whitney Johnson: While we were investing in disruption we were applying the S-curve. This was popularized by E.M. Rogers in 1962. He would use it to help you figure out how quickly an innovation would be adopted. If you picture the S it looks like a wave. At the low end of the S you know, when you introduce a product, that the growth is going to be really slow. But when you reach that tipping point of the curve, which is typically 10-15% of penetration in every given market, you move on to the steeper part of the curve, the back of the S-curve, where there is a lot of hyper growth. As you reach saturation of a market 90% your growth tapers of.
The big AHA that I had, that this is not just about a product, it also could help us understand people, and how we learn. Every single one of us is a learning machine that when we start something new we are at the bottom of the S where we tend not to know how to do it. Then after we put in an effort we move into the steep part of the S where we know enough but not too much, so we are figuring things out. And as we put in more and more effort you get to the top of the S where you are now a master because everything is easy, and you tend to get bored.
"You need to learn, leap and repeat."
What you have to do is to jump on the bottom of a new Learning Curve. You need to learn, leap and repeat. I felt that this was important because once you understand this, you will understand your biology, understand that we are wired to learn and to leap and repeat. It also explains so much in terms of our own career trajectories as well as how we need to manage the people who are working for us.
Agnes: What is the business case for this theory in an organisation? What can companies gain from the adaptation of this new mindset?
Whitney Johnson: There is data that says that if your people are engaged then your operating margins and ROI are higher. We also know that those people who are learning they are engaged. I would actually flip this; if you know that you need your people to be engaged than what do you do about that. You know that letting people learn drives engagement and if you drive engagement you increase your bottom line. If you look at it from a more qualitative standpoint the neuroscience is telling you that if your people are bored they will not innovate. If your people aren't innovating than you get left in the dust.
Agnes: It also forces organisations to be more trusting and creating a culture that is less based on fear, because you allow people to come forth in their own learning journeys and careers.
Whitney Johnson: Sometimes people say - "Can you Whitney have my boss read this book?" - but it really starts with you and with every individual. If you are having trouble letting people on your team jump to new Learning Curves than that requires your own personal work. Because, when we don’t want people to jump is because we are worried that if we lose our high performers than our team is going to under perform, and they might in the short term. But it is also not understanding that if you can allow high-performers to continue be high-performers either by allowing them to something new in your team or going somewhere else, then you start become a talent-magnet and start to attract the best talent, because people know that if they are working for you they are going to get a lot more opportunities.
A great example of this is WD-40, a California-based household manufacturer comapny, which is not Google or Facebook, or the other usual suspect companies when it comes to engagement, and yet their engagement scores are 90% plus versus an average of 30% in the US and 15% globally. The secret then? We all know, which we learned from our research, is it that they allow their people learn to leap and repeat. That is the real business case. This is the business case when you are willing to let your people learn then you create a tremendous amount of value.
Agnes: What would be your most important advice to a CEO who wants to adapt this new thinking and mindset within his or her organisation?
Whitney Johnson: I’ll give three pieces of advice.
First is to be willing to disrupt yourself, because it starts at the top and the more you are willing to try new things, and continually iterate on the version of you, there would be a contingent effect, which ultimately will lead people having more confidence and willingness to disrupt how they are being inside the workplace.
Secondly, one of the ways that you can disrupt yourself is to be willing to learn every single day. That can be spending 15 minutes a day just studying your craft, whether it’s about how to be a better CEO, whether it’s about learning more about your industry etc. It is about pushing yourself to continually learn.
The third suggestion I would like to make is just remember when you feel scared, and when you feel lonely, you are usually on the right path to disruption. So, just remember that. As you try to figure all this out you are probably going to be a little bit scared at the lower end of the learning curve. This is exactly how you supposed to feel, when you first starting at and trying to be disruptive, whether you are disrupting yourself of the industry in which you work.
Agnes: Also, important is to keep going, right?
Whitney Johnson: That is correct. That is when you need to keep going especially if you are playing where no one else is playing, if you are playing to your strengths, it gets hard but you are enjoying yourself, and you are gaining some type of momentum. If those four things are in place, you absolutely need to continue to persist. If they are not, it might not be the right curve and that is okay, because no S-curve is ever wasted.