How to apply S curves to your career?

Ravi Kumar.
5 min readJan 29, 2017

Last week turned out to be a deeply invigorating experience for me. We had a coach who facilitated a day long workshop with my entire team where we learnt to understand each other’s personalities better and pave way to work together effectively. Much before the workshop, we were all asked to complete a personality test called AEM. The results were published in a three-dimensional cube called the AEM cube that reflected your personality. I will follow up with a separate post on AEM later. But this post is about S curves, which was also something covered in the workshop.

S Curves

Most of us would know of S curves in the context of business and product lifecycle. Businesses, or the products of businesses, follow an S curve that are characterised by a shallow start, where only early adopters and niche markets buy the product or invest in the company. Then they experience a rapid growth, and the product or business has a dominant position in the market. After the rapid growth, these businesses maintain a high performance level but with little growth, which often signals a mature but saturated market.

Since every innovation that drives growth hits a plateau after attaining saturation, organisations should look for fostering more such S curves in the growth phase instead of waiting till saturation phase. And once they are able to bring in a disruptive innovation in the industry they operate in, it begins another S curve on top of the previous curve.

Facebook’s S Curve

As Facebook’s rate of growth had begun to slow it acquired Instagram and then followed up by acquiring Whatsapp. The acquisition added a billion more users to Facebook spurring another steep growth curve over a flat growth curve.

Applying S curves to your career path

What was even more fascinating for me was when I read an HBR article a few years ago that drew a parallel for S curves and applied to career path. It was precisely after reading this article that I set out my plans to disrupt my career path. It eventually led me to complete my MBA and make a transition to product management from technical communication.

According to Juan Mendez and Whitney Johnson, the authors of this article, in the beginning of our careers, we start within a new domain of expertise and develop competence moving up a personal learning curve. Then as we achieve mastery, the curve flattens.

There could be many reasons that the curve flattens. One of the most important reasons is the irrelevance of your old skills that have been disrupted because of new technologies in the market place. In the world of increasingly accelerated change, the shift in new technologies is more frequent and drastic.

This is where the need is for acquiring new skills and beginning curve of learning and career growth.

Shorter and shorter career S curves in the future

In an age of increasingly accelerated change, the S curves in our career is getting shorter and shorter. The skills that need renewal is changing much faster than yester years. What this means is to stay relevant, you have to embrace a culture of life-long learning.

Lessons from Any Grove, former CEO/Chairman of Intel

You have to accept that no matter where you work, you are not an employee — you are in a business with one employee: yourself. You are in competition with millions of similar businesses. There are millions of others all over the world, picking up the pace, capable of doing the same work that you can do and perhaps more eager to do it. Now, you may be tempted to look around your workplace and point to your fellow workers as rivals, but they are not. They are outnumbered — a thousand to one, one hundred thousand to one, a million to one — by people who work for organizations that compete with your firm. So if you want to work and continue to work, you must continually dedicate yourself to retaining your individual competitive advantage. — Andy Grove

“The sad news is, nobody owes you a career. You own it as a sole proprietor. You must compete with millions of individuals everyday, and everyday, you must enhance your value, hone your competitive advantage, learn, adapt, get out of the way, move from job to job, even from industry to industry if you must and retrench if you need to do so in order to start again. The key task is to manage your career so that you do not become a casualty. — Andy Grove

Andy offers a few questions to ponder about.

1. Are you adding real value or merely passing information along? How do you add more value? By continually looking for ways to make things truly better in your department. You are a manager. The output of a manager is the output of his organization. In principle, every hour of your day should be spent increasing the output or the value of the output of the people whom you’re responsible for.

2. Are you plugged into what’s happening around you? And that includes what’s happening inside your company as well as inside your industry as a whole. Or do you wait for a supervisor or others to interpret whatever is happening? Are you a node connected to a network of plugged-in people or are you floating by yourself?

3. Are you trying new ideas, new techniques, and new technologies, and I mean personally trying them, not just reading about them? Or are you waiting for others to figure out how they can re-engineer your workplace — and you out of that workplace?

I would highly recommend you to read Thomas Friedman’s book, Thank You For Being Late: An Optimists’ Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. I am soon going to publish a summary of the book.

Please let me know your thoughts about this post.