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Book Summary: Build An A Team

What does healthy disruption look like within the dynamic of a team? Whitney Johnson describes what she calls the 'S curve of learning' - a thesis central to the book and her philosophy of development in the workplace.

Disruptive innovation, at its simplest, explains how low-end industry insurgents take on - and eventually outcompete - high-end incumbents who seemingly should have known better Things take traction and the David beats the Goliath. 
It is now generally accepted that disruptive innovation underpins the invention of new products and services. Less generally recognised, is that personal disruption in the workplace - the movement of people from one learning curve to the next, one challenge to another can drive learning, engagement, and even innovation. Johnson claims we can build an A Team this way. Let’s explore how.

The S Curve of Learning

The S curve of learning represents three distinct phases: 

  1. The low end, involving a challenging and slow push for competence. 
  2. The up-swinging back of the curve, where competence is achieved, and progress is rapid. 
  3. The high end of the curve, where competence has evolved into mastery and can quickly devolve into boredom and disengagement.

An A-Team is a Collection of Learning Curves 

Johnson challenges us to visualise our team as a collection of people at different points on their own personal S curves. New team members will be at the low end of their curve for approximately six months depending on the difficulty and aptitude. At the six-month mark, they should be hitting the tipping point and moving onto the steep back of their learning curve. During this second phase, they’ll reach peak productivity, which is where they should stay for three to four years. At around the four-year mark, they will have made the push into mastery. In the mastery phase, an employee performs every task with ease and confidence. But ease, and even confidence, can quickly deteriorate into boredom without the motivation of a new challenge. It is time for them to jump to a new learning curve. 

Accelerants of Learning and Growth 

Johnson gives us pointers to progress on how to get the right Team on the right Learning S-curves:

  1. Identify the right risks 

    What needs aren’t being met on your team? Does it make sense to redistribute responsibilities? Create a new role? Would more high-quality candidates be available if you looked beyond the spec of the current job? As a manager your job is to mitigate the risk of disruption, not to plug gaps with human resource plugs.

  2. Play to individuals’ distinctive strengths 

    What does each person do well that other people on the team do not, and what sorts of problems do those strengths equip them to solve? As a manager, your job is to pinpoint what people do uniquely well and pit these abilities against assignments that make their strengths relevant.

  3. Stepping backward Is a way to move forward 

    Why would an employee be motivated to step back from success in a role while resting on their laurels at the top of the curve, enjoying privilege and entitlement? Because stepping back is your slingshot to moving further forward and contributing more. Pull back and accelerate further.

  4. Give failure Its due 

    At the low end of the curve, when you hire within the organisation you must expect staff to flounder. This gives them support for learning, allowing them to quickly engage in the actual work. With employees in the sweet spot of the S curve it can be harder. You may want to shield them from failure, but when tasked with undemanding assignments their confidence begins to falter. Give them stretch goals to keep the edge.

  5. Encourage discovery-driven growth 

    With discovery driven growth the initial plan is skeletal and is fleshed out as feedback rolls in. We can use this approach when managing people. As you learn about a person’s capabilities you can redeploy them to improve the match between strengths and unmet business needs. Job descriptions should be deliberately vague attracting talented prospects who can contribute now, while offering potential unexplored roles. 

Hire People Who Can Grow on the Job 

Begin by reminding yourself that the goal is to approach human resources as raw materials rather than as finished products, the same way you would handle other resources. Johnson suggests we consider the following:

  1. Identify the tasks you want a new hire to perform

    Don’t accept that it has to stay as it currently is. Genuinely understand what you are looking for, then make the effort to find it.

  2. Do a team check: consider how the new role will affect the team

    How might a new hire enhance the capacities your team already has? Where are the gaps in good team compatibility? 

  3. Do a sanity check

    Identify your motivation for the new hire.  Having identified these, may require an adjustment to expectations. If we onboard someone who can do the functional job but can’t do the emotional job, we won’t be satisfied no matter what they do. 

  4. Write the right job specification

    The target should be to attract talented people who are qualified to onboard at the low end of the job’s learning curve. They won’t be experts, but they will have what it takes to learn and grow into other roles. If we inflate the necessary qualifications to attract the crème-de-la crème we will get a candidate who will become disinterested within the first few months of employment. 

Managing the Hungry New Hire 

New hires need a vision. Understanding why their job is important will aid them through early stage difficult days. Initially they may struggle and try your patience. You may even wonder why you hired them. But you can increase their odds of moving up the learning curve by laying out a vision from the outset. Just as your new employee needs to understand the company’s vision, you’ll want to understand theirs. Find out what they are trying to accomplish as a person and how this new role fits with their goals, as well as what they anticipate they will need from you to be successful. 

As your employees share their goals with you, clarify expectation that progression by learning is important. Be explicit: I am here to help you help me get my job done. Here’s how. I will then reward you for your contributions. And here’s how I’ll do that. Get your new hire’s perspective on your operation. Being able to hear the contrary ideas of others allows us to move more quickly up the learning curve. Learn to solicit ideas and opinions from newcomers who aren’t yet blind through familiarity. Future performance and innovation may hinge on it.

Be a Chief Encouragement Officer. Feeling the agitation or disapproval of the boss can cause concern. Remember staff took this job and will stay in this job - or not - largely because of the leader. If you can make them feel safe and acknowledge their efforts, even when imperfect, you’re sitting on a gold mine. 

Playing to Sweet Spot Strengths 

Sweet-spot employees are confident in their abilities, having moved past the daily struggle at the low end of the curve. Yet it is common for managers to be reluctant to provide these employees with stretch assignments. Maybe you don’t want to discourage or derail them. But experiencing a genuine risk of failure - working under pressure - is what motivates most of us to step up to the plate. Allow, and even generate, pressure. In the case of your sweet-spot employees, consider imposing constraints that fall into the following categories: 

  • Time 

    A task that is less demanding becomes a major challenge if you impose a tight deadline. Here are some questions to ask your employees, and yourself. To hit annual targets in nine months instead of twelve, what would you do differently? If you were going to be away for three months, what would you do to make sure things could run without you? What are the most important priorities? Which things aren’t as important? What must you absolutely get done so that your manager can advocate for your jump to a new curve? 

  • Money 

    Trim back the expenditure on the team. Ask questions such as: If your business unit had to be profitable as a stand-alone entity, what would your business model be? If you only had half of the current marketing budget, what would you do differently? If you had to assemble an A-team with only 80% of your current budget, what would you do? 

  • Expertise

    Exploit their deep understanding. Ask: If you were CEO for a day and ran the company based on your area of expertise, what would you change? What if everyone on your team were new? No experts, only novices. What would you do differently? 

Managing Masters 

Here’s the challenge: after months, maybe years of investment, our employee shoots up the learning curve. They have become our go-to person, willing and able to do whatever is asked. We’ve become accustomed to an outsized return on their effort. Why would we push them to try something new, when we’re still reaping the rewards of our investment? As growth peaks and flattens out, if change isn’t on the horizon, our high performer may become a low performer. This is seldom intentional, but it happens anyway, either because they feel stymied or because work has become too easy, and routine is boring. 

Have Your Best Workers Share What They Know 

High-end-of-the-curve employees are sought after assets internally but even more so externally. So how can you manage (and keep) this human resource you’ve worked hard to develop in a way that will work for your organisation, your team, and you?

There are three important roles they can play: 

  • Pacesetters

    Pushing low-enders to excel. Put your top performers to good use by showing low-enders what success looks like.

  • Trainers

    Conveying corporate memory. Have the top enders create their legacy in the creation of the Organisational Encyclopaedia - The business Book of Knowledge. 

  • Mentors

    The benefits of mentoring offer a fresh angle on the job for someone who may be a bit idle while they await the jump to a new curve, and it disperses the training responsibility through a wider pool of talent. 

Keeping Masters Engaged

The goal is always to retain talent, but the more people achieve seniority, the more it becomes a challenge. Not everyone can go up. But it is also true that 'up' isn’t the only way up: a lot of learning and growth can happen in lateral moves that may give employees the perfect skill set to forge ahead. If lateral moves carry some stigma, then backward moves are often seen as even more so. We tend to assume something’s wrong with someone who takes a step back. But sometimes taking a step back is exactly the right move. Like the slingshot, we pull back to get the momentum we need to catapult forward. 

Shake Things Up 

Managing people as a series of S curves requires a disruptive mindset on your part. Here are some important questions Johnson says we should consider.

How can I shake up employees or teams who have become set in their ways? What goals might be accomplished by shifting people into different roles? How can I create a company culture that encourages and even insists on curve jumping? 

Where to Climb When You’re at the Top 

For some employees, there may not be a next curve to jump to within the organisation, especially those who are approaching retirement. Data tells us that more people are choosing to work past traditional retirement milestones. Some may have the work-life bandwidth remaining to tackle entirely new learning curves, others may not. Efforts to accommodate their needs, perhaps part-time or remote work can keep them contributing at great benefit to everyone involved. Many will be willing to discuss adjustments to compensation that will maintain their high value to the firm while allowing them more flexibility to pursue noncareer objectives. The key is to think creatively. Years of experience is a human resource not to be wasted. 


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