Surfing the S curve of personal disruption


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The theory of disruption suggests your odds of success could be six times higher, your revenue opportunity 20 times greater

It begins with an understanding of the S curve. Developed by Everett Rogers in 1962, the S curve is a graphic illustration of how disruptive ideas and products spread through cultures. Adoption is relatively slow at the base of the S until a tipping point is reached. Hyper-growth follows up the steep back of the curve, then growth slows again as potential is achieved.

Surfing the S curve requires acknowledging this phenomenon, and generating our own wave that we can ride to new levels of success. Whether the growth we pursue increases profitability, personal satisfaction or both, the S curve illustrates the potential benefits of personal disruption. While we may be 'equal before a wave' we are not necessarily equal once the swell breaks over us. It depends on whether we are able to catch the wave and surf it to success, or vulnerable to being submerged by it.

Take the right risks

Successful disruption requires savvy evaluation of risk and courage to embrace the right risks. By identifying how your strengths, experience, and innovative ideas can address unmet needs – what you do well that isn’t being done – you position yourself to dive in at the shallow end of the S curve where the potential for success is greatest.

Embrace constraints

Doing more with less, setting ego aside and stepping down in order to move up, acknowledging that the failure of one idea can lead to the success of another... all of these may be part of the training required to ultimately surf the S curve of disruption to success.

Be driven by discovery

Discovering our own possibilities requires leaving the familiar (and safe) and venturing into the unknown. An ocean wave isn’t surfed by a bystander on the beach, neither is the S curve negotiated without willingness to wade into the unpredictable currents of personal disruption. We can’t expect the opportunities we want to come to us; we have to go to them. Remember: the power, potential, and thrill of the ride are found in the wave as it swells and crests, not in the shallows lapping on the shore.

The rewards for taking a risk

Imitation, rather than innovation, sounds the death knell not just for companies and career ambitions but also for an essential piece of self. The part that believes we can do great things; believes that we are courageous and can rise to the occasion of opportunity. Not just imitating others, but trying to imitate and recreate our own past accomplishments can result in stagnation, boredom, depression, and declining performance/productivity.

Moreover, maintaining the status quo doesn’t guarantee security; in fact it can’t be done. Starbucks founder Howard Schultz said: "Any company that embraces the status quo is on a collision course with time." The same is true of individuals. The future is rolling toward all of us, and upon arrival it won’t look like the present. It never does. The key to thriving – not merely surviving – is anticipating the wave; envisioning a possible future and shaping it through our own unique contributions. Choosing to disrupt, rather than being compelled to do so, maximises our potential for both profit and personal satisfaction.

We can’t forestall the forces of change but we can marshall their power to propel us upward. Disrupting on our own terms makes us agents of change, surfers on the S curve not flotsam tossed to and fro then stranded on the beach. We can shape the wave of the future, and then catch the next wave rolling in, equipped with the skills and tools to ride it to success.

Whitney Johnson is an author, speaker and coach for Harvard Business School's executive education programme

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