The Bumpy Learning Curve

A normal learning curve eventually leads to mastery. Yet, management teams’ learning curves frequently turn out to be rather flat. How come?

30 seconds with your preferred search engine will show you multiple versions of the learning curve. While they differ in details and granularity, the all show the same two key findings.

Learnings from the Learning Curve

  1. If you focus and invest time into a subject, you will eventually reach a level of mastery. The actual level clearly depends on the amount of invested time and to a significant extent on your inherent abilities to acquire the specific knowledge. I could probably spend a decade on quantum physics and not progress beyond the level of ‘enthusiastic beginner’.
  2. It is not a smooth single curve. It is a curve in the mathematical sense with uneven ups and downs reflecting the usual ‘bumps in the road’ that we all experience when dealing with challenging topics.

Below you can find one of my preferred depictions of the learning curve.

Typical learning curve

The Good Case

Whenever we start something new, we feel this fire inside us to dive right into it. We usually have no or little competence at that point, but are filled with commitment. What is described as ‘Development Level D1’ in the Situational Leadership Model, which I highly recommend to take a look at, if you are not yet familiar with it.

Soon after we hit the first bump, we realize that things are harder than expected and the learning curve gets steep. But a combination of low to some competence and low but still sufficient commitment (you guessed it: ‘Development Level D2’) carries us through this phase to the point where we feel that we got it all figured out.

Except, we haven’t.

We hit the next bump and this is a big one. While we are certainly more knowledgeable than we were at the beginning of our endeavor, everything seems to go slower than expected and there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel – or if there is, it’s probably an upcoming train. We are at ‘Development Level D3’ with moderate competence and (very) varying commitment.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

This is usually the breaking point. If we manage to overcome this rather than giving up and retreating to our comfort zone, we will be richly rewarded. So we drag on … and on … and on. Until life gives us a break in form of some major breakthrough. At first we can hardly believe our luck – only realizing later that it was not luck at all, but the result of our own determination – so we check. And check again.

We have high competence and high commitment. This is as good as it gets.

It’s true! We actually made it. We reached a heretofore unimagined level of mastery in a domain that looked ever so difficult in the beginning. Our body gets flooded with an exhilarating cocktail of endorphin, dopamine and no small amount of serotonin. We feel elated, proud and – let’s be honest – mightily relieved. Work does not feel like work at all. In somewhat more dry words, we reached ‘Development Level D4’ with high competence and high commitment. This is as good as it gets.

So much for how it SHOULD be for individuals as well as for teams. Usually it is harder for teams than for individuals due to the added complexity of, well … people.

Here is how it often happens in reality.

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