Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Sigmoid Curve, Personal Learning, and the "Business" of Education

I have been thinking the last couple of weeks about my own personal learning habits, the CareerTech Testing Center, and on the "business" of education.

The last few days I began to think of Charles Handy and his Sigmoid Curve. This S-shaped curve can be used to describe the life-cycle of products, organizations, and even relationships. As the curve symbolizes the fact that nearly all of life’s endeavours start slowly, dip and falter through an experimental stage before rising to a pinnacle of success, after which there is inevitable decline.

To avoid such decline, decisions have to be made about further improvement at the point where success is still growing and before the entity/individual starts to experience this plateau. For many, this is a difficult thing to do. After all, if you have just survived the difficult and trying times, who wants to begin new sacrifices and give additional effort? Shouldn't there be plenty of time to relax and bask in your success?

I think good leaders and good learners know that this is the time to think about the next phase of change; resting on laurels will invariably lead to decline.

On its own, the S-shaped curve is a kind of depressing, and not particularly helpful. Is my life and/or my organization on the downward curve? What's left? Just thinking of putting your head in the sand and waiting for the inevitable end?

Actually, the power of the Sigmoid Curve comes when you begin to add a second curve to the original curve (see below). Charles Handy suggests that constant growth and development is achievable if we start a new initiative before the first one begins to decline (point X).

Paradoxically, this means making changes when the first curve is nearing its peak and the venture is flourishing. This is when an organization has the time, resources and the energy needed to see a new curve through initial explorations and floundering. Although there will inevitably be more motivation to change at “Y” when the first curve is in decline, at that point it takes enormous effort to move to where one ought to be on the second curve.

How do you make the second curve happen?

Knowing when to start a new curve is one thing and getting it started at the right time is quite another thing. Whether the second curve is a new product, a way of operating, a strategy or a culture, it will require fresh ideas and inspiration; and always be different to the first.

Handy believes that in an organization, the people who lead the second curve will also have to be different. Not only do original leaders need to keep the first curve going while the second takes off, they will also find it difficult to abandon their first curve while it is doing so well: there is a strong temptation to recapture past glories. What this means is that for a time there will probably be tension, confusion, chaos, backstabbing, anarchy (the area between X and Y) while new ideas and new people coexist with the old until the handover between first and second curves is complete. I recommend that everyone be as open as possible and just communicate. Develop feelings of mutual trust.

As Handy puts it, the paradox of success is that what got you where you are won’t keep you where you are.

When do we begin the second curve?

The key question becomes, “where are we on the first curve, and when do we need to start the second?” Handy suggests we will only know this for sure when we look back and, without hindsight, it is best to proceed by guess and assumption.

What this means in practice is that we must constantly engage in second-curve thinking. We need to stay sceptical, curious and inventive, challenging the assumptions underlying our current curve and developing alternatives. We need to ask questions like, “if we did not exist, would we reinvent ourselves and, if so, what would we look like?”. It is this kind of thinking that gives birth to second curves.

I think this is a different way of thinking for many of us and in reality, we should celebrate different points of view and different personalities. Our culture should be one that creates an attitude of messing with success.

In summary, the message of the Sigmoid Curve is that we need the foresight to start making changes even when it is not yet obvious that change is necessary, and the courage to switch from one curve to the next when the time has come.

In these trying economic times, the management philosopher thinks he can survive -- even prosper -- in the tough new downsized world as long as he understands the forces that are shaping it.

Now I ask that you will examine your personal Sigmoid Curve for learning and also where your organization (school/Agency/business) is on the curve?

Most importantly, remember to:
  • Courageously ask the tough questions.
  • Cultivate an attitude of messing with success.
  • Creatively experiment with new combinations of old ideas.
  • Celebrate different points of views and personalities.
  • Encourage and celebrate new ideas.
  • Remember that contraries are your friends and not your enemies.
Adapted from Handy, C. (1994) The Empty Raincoat, London: Random House

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