Author Q&A with Whitney Johnson on Smart Growth

Sarah Hinson

Growth is a top goal for individuals, leaders, and organizations as a whole. But how can we grow effectively? What does that even look like? We turned to bestselling author, leadership expert and executive advisor Whitney Johnson for answers. Her new bestseller, Smart Growth, is a compact, comprehensive guide to charting growth (yes, you can actually do this, and it's super helpful!) in a way that deepens self-awareness and encourages progress. Smart Growth is a must-read for anyone looking to demystify growth and set the stage for change and growth for you––and your organization.

Check out our Q&A with Johnson below and, if you haven't yet, pick up a copy of her new book ASAP!

Q: Tell me about the process of writing Smart Growth. When and why did you decide to start writing it? 

A: My most recent books, Disrupt Yourself and Build an A-Team, focus explicitly on disruption, first for individuals and then for teams. The S Curve of Learning played an important supporting role in both books, serving as the structure through which we disrupt ourselves, our teams, and companies. And it struck me that while people are interested in disruption, they are fascinated by the S Curve. 

After talking with a group of Chief Experience Officers in Utah, I was relaying this observation about the S Curve to my business partner, Amy. In that conversation, she said, “we have to write a book on the S Curve.” We had been packaging so much around it, and it was time for the S Curve to stand on its own, with all its complexities and richness. The straightforward model of launch point to sweet spot to mastery needed to be explored a bit more. We needed to find out through research and through stories what else there was to learn and teach about the power of the S Curve.

Q: In your podcast, "Disrupt Yourself," you spoke about the challenges of writing this book—and the growth that happened throughout the process. How did you stay motivated?

A: There were a number of things that kept me motivated and on track, both emotionally and practically. Most foundational is my "why" and how aligned it is with Smart Growth. I want to make progress personally and I want to help others make progress. I believed, and continue to believe, that The S Curve of Learning™ is a map to do that. This deeply held belief animated the entire process.

From a business standpoint, the S Curve and some of the ideas in Smart Growth had been introduced but not fully formed in my two previous books. It was important to me that they were codified more fully and completely. 

Deadlines are very useful. I had made a commitment to deliver a manuscript to Harvard Business Press, and it was important to me to keep my word. Not just contractually, but because I said I would. 

Writing can be a laborious and painful process in the beginning. To get through that, I tried to take my own advice and start very small. When I had nothing on the page and found myself wandering around the launch point, I would say “just do five minutes, just do ten minutes.” I trusted that momentum would eventually take over, and it did. 

Finally, I didn’t write Smart Growth alone, and I couldn’t have done it without a phenomenal team. My amazing conceptual editor and writer, Heather Hunt, and the brilliant storyteller, Frank Morgan, were invaluable in making the words come to life. My business partner, Amy Humble, and I ideated constantly, resulting in stronger concepts. I also had a thought partner around evaluation, Kurt Wilson.

Not only do teammates make the work better, they create checkpoints and accountability that are very helpful for staying motivated. 

Q: For people unfamiliar with this framework: Can you explain the “S Curve of Learning” model used in your book?

A: The S Curve of Learning is a simple visual model that demystifies the process of growth. Every new skill learned, every challenge faced, takes the form of a distinct learning curve. 

When we start something new, we are at the launch point. Because our brain processes the new and tries to understand how it connects with the old, it has limited processing capacity. We can easily get overloaded. 

As we approach the rising slope of the S Curve, we gain momentum. This is the sweet spot, and while what we're doing has not yet become natural to us, we are gaining confidence, and our growth accelerates. 

At the high end of the curve, we find ourselves in mastery. We have reached our objective and maximized our potential growth. We begin to get bored, and it’s time to find a new mountain to climb. 

The S Curve allows you to understand how growth happens, and to create a culture that fosters growth. 

Q: Why is the S Curve an important model for individuals—and, more specifically, leaders—to understand and apply?

A: The S Curve gives you a language for growth. When you know where you are in your growth, when you know what to expect, you can grow faster. 

As a manager, the S Curve of Learning gives you a common language for growth, and gives you an understanding of where your people are. People need different support at different places on the curve. 

The S Curve also helps leaders understand the distribution of the team across the curve, giving important insight into team dynamics, areas of strength and possible challenges. By understanding where your people are on their curve, personally and collectively, you can understand where you need to invest resources to maximize the growth of your people and your company. 

Q: Did the COVID pandemic impact your thinking, writing process, and/or perspective on growth? If so, how? 

A: Prior to the pandemic, I traveled extensively. So, when events were canceled and planes were grounded, I found myself with wide swathes of time on my calendar. The flexibility in my schedule enabled me to think, to organize ideas, to write, and to edit. I often woke up between 3 and 4 in the morning and worked on the book. It gave me a few hours of completely uninterrupted time to focus. 

As for my perspective, I am thinking differently about how our brains work and how growth and stress are interconnected. Psychologists have found that a period of severe stress (like a pandemic) is often followed by tremendous growth. It’s called post-traumatic growth. Because of all the newness that we have faced over the past few years, we have formed new neural pathways. We have flexed the muscle of doing “new." We are primed and ready to grow, but don’t always know how. The S Curve of Learning can help.  

Q: How has your own thinking about growth changed over time?

A: Up until a few years ago, when people would ask me what my greatest fear was, I would say, “Being stuck.” I have since been influenced by the work of people like Bob Proctor, who tells us:

If you think about being stuck, you will stay stuck. If you think about being in debt, you will stay in debt. You go where your mind goes. Instead of thinking about what you fear, think about where you want to go. Think about growing wealth. Think about growth. 

So, over the past few years, I have done a significant reframe. We all want to grow. If we are stuck, we must look toward growth and we will find the information and tools we need to grow. Growth is our default setting, not stagnation.

Q: Can you touch on the six stages of growth outlined in your book? 

A: In the book, we break down the three phases of the S Curve into six stages of growth for the first time. The six stages of growth are: Explorer, Collector, Accelerator, Metamorph, Anchor, and Mountaineer. Each phase of the S Curve of Learning is marked by distinct characteristics, challenges, and thrills. 

At the launch point, there are many new opportunities to pursue. We call this the Explorer phase. This phase is thrilling and awkward, and growth can feel slow with so much uncertainty. Once we decide a specific S Curve warrants further evaluation, we become a Collector, seeking data that will help us assess the fit of the particular curve. It might still be slow, but it will also help us grow. 

When we get to the sweet spot and we start to gain momentum, this is considered the Accelerator phase. We experience fast growth in this stage.

As we move through the sweet spot, we forge a new identity—what we do becomes who we are.

It's natural and reflexive, and we've reached the Metamorph stage, achieving a lot of growth in a short time. The effort is still required, but our brain picks up the pace, and growth feels even faster than before.  

At the high end of the curve, we find ourselves in mastery. We have reached our objective and maximized our potential growth. The newly learned behavior is anchored in us, marking this the Anchor phase. But when a skill becomes effortless, we have excess mental and emotional processing power, and we lose the feel-good effects of learning. We get bored, and things feel slow. It's time to find a new mountain to climb, and we become Mountaineers.

Q: Which stage of growth do you find most challenging? Most rewarding? 

A: Definitely the launch point. It is so uncomfortable. I continually use what I know about the launch point to talk myself through new situations.

The launch point is filled with the threat of uncertainty, but understanding the S Curve process reduces anxiety and frustration, just as having a map eases worries on an unfamiliar trip. I think because I find it so challenging, it is also the most rewarding stage of growth. 

Mastery is a close second, specifically the Anchor phase that is about celebrating what I’ve accomplished and who I’ve become. It's so important to honor this, and I have to talk myself through this: “If you celebrate and focus on what’s working, you’ll get more of it.” I try to match the time of pause, reflection, and celebration with the significance of the particular curve. The bigger the accomplishment, the more time I invest in celebration and reflection. I have found that taking the utilitarian approach really helps. 

Q: What are some common misconceptions about growth? 

A: There are a number of misconceptions about growth, but three specifically come to mind. 

First, we are often led to believe that there is a point in life when growth is less relevant or comes to a stop. The assumption can be made that at the end of a career, growth is less important. The reality is people are hardwired to grow, and that never changes. The form growth takes may evolve or the speed of growth may change, but we are always oriented toward growth.

Second, we can be drawn to thinking that the sweet spot is the best place to be on a growth journey. And while the sweet spot feels good because growth is fast, it is just another stretch of the journey and cannot be permanent. The launch point and mastery are just as much a part of the growth process, and no one phase is better than another. 

Finally, we can feel like we have no control over our growth, or how fast we grow. But in reality, if we understand where we are in our growth, we can grow faster.

Additionally, there are tools we can use, such as the Seven Accelerants of Personal Disruption™, to move us up the S Curve of Learning at a faster pace. The Seven Accelerants of Personal Disruption are explored in my book Disrupt Yourself. 

Q: You’ve said we should refer to “The Great Resignation” as “The Great Aspiration.” Can you talk about what this means to you? 

A: The pandemic has redefined the way we work and it has disrupted our expectations of how work gets done. As a result, people have an opportunity to completely rethink their lives. It has awoken something within us as humans to recognize that we want more. Workers are ready to go after what they want. They are not resigning to do less, but aspiring to do more. 

With workers seeking new challenges, better pay, better work-life balance, and better opportunities amid an abundance of open jobs, leaders need to be intentional about creating workplaces people aspire to join and where they are excited to stay. 

And while compensation, vacation, and remote work capabilities might be a part of it, I think a significant cause of the movement in the workforce is that people want to be part of a culture that is oriented toward growth. People want to be in an organization, or an ecosystem, that promotes their growth.

Q: Why is the environment an important factor to consider when talking about growth?

A: While we are responsible for our own growth, little growth happens if we aren’t in a growth-friendly environment. No one grows alone, and our growth ecosystem is the web of interpersonal relationships that make growth possible. 

The analogy of climbing a mountain is a helpful visual to understand the role of the environment or ecosystem. If the S Curve is the mountain and the accelerants are the tools, the environment (or ecosystem) is the weather pattern. You can be as prepared as possible and have all of your tools in your backpack, but if the weather is not conducive to a climb, it impacts your ability to succeed. 

Q: If you wanted managers to apply one key idea from your book, which one would it be? Why?

A: In your team’s ecosystem, you, as the manager, are a keystone species. A keystone species influences the survival of other species. In your case, you influence the growth of those on your team and in your organization.

Consider another keystone species, water lilies. Their ponds and ecosystems cannot survive without the lilies. Tadpoles find food and shelter in the lilies’ shade, and those tadpoles turn into frogs. Frogs sunbathe on the lily pads, and snakes hunt the frogs. The cycle goes on, but not without the water lilies. The water lilies help other species survive and thrive.

As you travel the S Curve of life, your greatest legacy will be how you help others grow. As a manager, you are fortunate to be in a position to do just that on a daily basis. The health of your ecosystem depends on what you contribute and how you help others grow.

Q: What advice would you give someone who feels "stuck"?  

A: Feeling stuck in a job or career path is common, and the process of getting unstuck can feel impossible. When we aren’t growing as fast as we’d like, what can we do to gain momentum? In order to accelerate growth, we need to understand how growth works. The S Curve of Learning is a map that can help us understand where and how to jumpstart our growth journey. By taking a step back to plan ahead, we can go further, faster. 

Determine where you are on the S Curve to help diagnose your challenge or identify what's making you feel stuck. 

If work feels difficult, slow, and possibly intimidating, you may be at the launch point. 

If work feels exciting and fast, and you’re feeling increasingly more competent, it’s likely that you’re in the sweet spot. You probably aren’t in the sweet spot if you’re feeling stuck. 

If you’re starting to feel bored and unmotivated, you may have reached mastery. 

If you’re at the launch point, you know that this feeling of being stuck might be fleeting. You can use the Seven Accelerants to move through the slow growth, faster. As you move into the sweet spot, the feelings of being stuck will diminish. If you’re in mastery, it’s probably time to find a new mountain to climb. It’s time to become an explorer on a new S Curve launch point. 

About the Author: Whitney Johnson

Whitney Johnson is CEO of Disruption Advisors, an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing private company in America. One of the top ten business thinkers in the world as named by Thinkers50, Whitney is an expert in smart growth leadership. Whitney has worked with FORTUNE 100 companies, and as an award-winning equity analyst on Wall Street. She has coached CEOs, private equity partners, and FORTUNE 100 executives for decades. Whitney understands how companies work, how investors think, and how the best coaches coach. 

Whitney was co-founder of the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Clayton Christensen. Her role included fund formation, strategy, and capital raising. They invested and led the $8 million seed round for South Korea’s Coupang ecommerce platform, currently valued at $40 billion.

An innovation and disruption theorist, Whitney is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and MIT Sloan Management Review. She is the author of Smart Growth which Publishers Weekly described as “cogent, insightful, practical, inspiring”, Build an A Team (a Financial Times Book of the Month) and Disrupt Yourself. She hosts the weekly Disrupt Yourself podcast with guests including Apolo Ohno, Adam Grant, Brené Brown, and James Clear.

Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Johnson teaches the S Curve of Learning to leaders and companies as an executive coach, facilitator, and keynote speaker and is a frequent lecturer for Harvard Business School. She is a LinkedIn Top Voice (2020) with 1.8 million followers and her course Fundamentals of Entrepreneurship has been viewed more than 1 million times.

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