Translating the Learning “S-Curve” to SMART Annual and Quarterly Goals
Without a framework, goal setting can often be a ponderous process. Vague thoughts of desired achievements, possibly unconnected and perhaps rushed as internal deadlines loom. In this article I propose a visual framework to set goals, whilst relating this to the learning “S-Curve” proposed by Juan Méndez and Whitney Johnson. In my opinion, relating these two frameworks together produce a powerful tool for accelerated career progression.
During our professional careers we undertake numerous roles. As life progresses, we learn and improve our marketable skills to apply for, and undertake, these roles. Each is unique in the challenges it presents, but offers increasing experience, responsibility and learning in return as time progresses. In a 2012 Harvard Business Review article, Juan Méndez and Whitney Johnson argue that the learning process of a new role can be expressed as an S-curve (Figure 1).
Figure 1: The learning “S-Curve” (Méndez and Johnson, 2012)
Starting in a new role, the challenges faced require the greatest amount of new learning. Previous experience of similar situations is typically lower, and activities completed might achieve lower than intended success. However, through concerted focus and practice, the article describes a virtuous cycle, leading to accelerated progression into the “sweet spot of competence and confidence”. The article notes the endorphins produced from successful applied learning and the strong impact that has in fuelling further interest, ambition and attention. However with increasing experience in role, the level of perceived challenges, and the sense of achievement felt in overcoming them, might appear smaller. Equally, resolving challenges might become increasingly habitual, owing to the learning and experience garnered in the role to date. This area termed “mastery” offers comfort and security in experience but does not offer the same degree of endorphin stimulation earlier in the phase.
Thus to promote an accelerated career trajectory, the article highlights the need to transition from one “S-Curve” to another as the illustration in Figure 2 shows. The curves themselves exhibit similar characteristics to product lifecycle curves and pivots a business needs to undertake to remain competitive. I believe this comparative with business transformation and success is a valid one. Of particular note is the focus during the latter stages of the preceding curve, to use time gained through experience and efficiency in the current role, to develop new skills perhaps required by a future role. This reduces the risk of transition between curves, whilst allowing for further satisfaction by learning new topics or behaviours. This also serves to counter any lack of interest at times which might arise by onset of habituality later in the “S-Curve” cycle.
Figure 2: Transitioning from one “S-Curve” to another. (Méndez and Johnson, 2012).
Driving Success: “The Goal Development Framework”
It is widely documented that successful individuals exhibit a goal orientated mindset. In our careers, goals are set for a number of reasons. Operational goals often tie into our ‘day-job’ or remuneration targets and typically align with business objectives. Personal goals allow us to obtain or hone skills, perhaps ones we are not currently using, but need for eligibility for a more senior or future role. Beyond doubt, is that the setting of goals allows us to focus effort and drive on achievable activities or actions, for the future benefit of our careers and potential remuneration.
I have created a Goal Development Framework, shown in Figure 3, that relates the “S-Curve” learning phases, to the timing and setting of personal goals. The goals are categorised into three simple, relatable areas. A visual approach allows for the planning and relation of goals to particular phases, both to the “S-Curve” and to the calendar or fiscal year of the organisation. This means goals can be planned to achieve the greatest relevance at a particular point in time, both to the individual and to the business. Naturally the time phases on the horizontal axis might differ depending on individual circumstance or a particular role. I feel that three years in a particular role allows for learning, mastery and consistent success to be demonstrated, without attracting undue criticism or concern towards tenure in seat.
I decide to categorise goals into three areas catering to the the three main stakeholders; the business, the individual and the wider team.
1) Business / Operational
These goals are largely dictated by the raison d’être of the role in the business. For example, as a salesperson, an annual business goal would represent your annual quota. Whilst quarterly goals might represent special incentives set by the business at points in time; for example, the cross-selling of a complementary product. For a marketing individual, an annual goal might represent the total marketing qualified leads delivered into the sales funnel. Quarterly objectives might relate to the successful delivery of particular quarterly campaigns. Ultimately the successful achievement of business goals should produce the attainment expected of the role with respect to its seniority and responsibility in the business.
Personal goals need not relate to the professional environment. In this context however, they should reflect personal learning required in a given phase, or to prepare for a transition to another “S-Curve”. Again, it’s important to sub-divide personal goals into annual objectives, but also to set smaller achievable, quarterly objectives. As an example, perhaps a personal objective is to understand a new industry sector and the relevance of a product to this industry. Whilst the industry understanding might represent an annual goal, quarterly goals might represent the applicability of product in particular sub-industry verticals. Thus, offering a manageable route to understanding the wider industry by the end of the year.
This final goal category is very important for self-sustaining teams, but one could also extrapolate ‘team’ to reflect all individuals in the business. Team goals should focus the individual not on themselves, but on how they can help others. Mentoring another individual is a common example of a team goal. However, there are many other scenarios of equal importance. Perhaps an individual has become the ‘go-to’ for a particular challenge or activity. By setting a team goal to ‘educate out’ into the organisation, others can use this learning to advance their own “S-Curves”, rather than rely on self-education. There are many other examples to list, however it is important to appreciate the difference of this category. Whilst categories 1 & 2 reflect highly individual targets. Team goals must stand to primarily benefit all those other than the individual.
Using the “S-Curve” as a base but introducing the time constraints of a fiscal year to set goals results in a powerful framework. In my opinion, it allows individuals to consider the trajectory of their roles, to consider the skills and learning needed at each phase, and subsequently translate this into setting achievable goals to work towards. This in turn will create a positive feedback loop as development, learning and progression are divided into manageable chunks that have a high relevance to the particular phase an individual might be in. Above all, the framework produces an outcome that will reduce risk and increase the opportunity of a successful jump to another role and another learning curve. This protects against the increase of habituality in role, maintaining learning and interest and ultimately maintaining high employee engagement.
If this framework has piqued interest, I would welcome any comments regarding its use in your business or circumstance.