How much change is too much? Control your “learning curves”

There is way too much “carpe diem” advice out there telling us to “jump in” and various other forms of “commit yourself fully” that distorts or glosses over how big and tough the changes can be. Particularly when there are MANY. I want you to be successful AND be able to make rent next month.

I’m putting a stake in the ground and advising you that MOST of the time, you want to control the number of variables you change all at once. It’s not about whether you commit, it’s to HOW MANY things you commit.

My general advice when facing a big decision on a new role is to think about the number of (major) experiential variables they are putting in play. Each variable is a separate “learning curve”. Ask yourself how much intellectual and emotional bandwidth do you have right now and how many things can you really take on successfully?

A recent discussion with a former student sparked this column (thanks Thomas). He observed a colleague’s challenge with making a wholesale change all at once and being “set up for failure” because everything in their new position was new. Given the position  – exciting functional role, developing economy – I bet it looked AWESOME on paper. Just the type of role a new MBA craves. My point is to be careful about having eyes bigger than your stomach.

For example, let’s say you’re moving to a new position and managing people for the first time. All things being equal, try to not have it be in a new company with new products in a new metro area. Each of these is a separate curve. Market, product, function, company, role, level/job grade…all bring specific experience requirements. 3+ major learning areas is too many (if you have a choice).

Types of Curves

Here are few that I see as major differences or divisions that require meaningfully different cognitive and experience bases. This is a non-scientific thought exercise, so don’t get too hung up on my categories.

Functional Role – The granddaddy of learning curves. You are stretching into an area you have no or limited prior experience in. (Think moving from Finance to Marketing or Lab to business management.) So much changes here that I’ll just pick out a few things to highlight.

How about underlying assumptions or thought process? The basic belief about what we work on and what matters differ across functions. Even in the same company, you may all say you want growth – but each function would articulate it differently and they default to different senses of what matters most.

Another one is metrics. How is success (or failure) measured? In my experience, the up and down side risks vary by role. A colleague of mine who ran a P&L and was trying to launch a product once led a launch planning meeting and got so frustrated with lack of progress or commitment that he finally asked everyone in the room whether they had a financial number for the upcoming launch on their annual performance goals. He was the only one (out of >10 team members who did.) Problem and disconnect identified! Everyone was on a different scorecard. It’s amazing how when you switch chairs you have to think about how the other side thinks. Point being it’s often quite different.

Organization – Whether it’s different business units in a company or it’s a new employer, you have to re-learn “how things are done here.” Things like decision making style (are decisions taken in meetings or set up before and the meeting is a formality), comfort with conflict, what is rewarded and many other factors are all important to understand when trying to be effective.

Geography – Whether you’re a new sales person changing US domestic territories or you are changing countries there are multiple things you need to re-learn to be successful.  Language, social norms, business decorum and social networks all change.

Market/Product – Even an experienced general manager has to re-learn when they take on a new market or product. The nature of competition and what wins is very different in B2C vs. B2B markets, for example. If you have always sold direct and inherit a new channel, let me tell you – you’ll have a learning curve. Players, where power sits, what is driving innovation…and so many other things vary as you move across businesses.

Job Grade/Org Level – As you get promoted, you move through very different challenges. The first time you manage others, the first time you manage multiple teams, the first time you manage people remotely (like a national sales force) – all these jumps create new challenges that are at the core of long term success. How to make others successful as you have diminishing direct control or observation?

New Boss/Staff – Human interaction is always complex. So learning how to successfully manage up, down and lateral/peer relationships is obviously important. But we often underestimate the time and energy it takes to understand others’ styles, goals and what will make them successfully. Things as simple as “when do I approach the boss with a new idea and how do I frame it?” are NOT always straightforward. You need to learn and it changes as the players change.

Personal Life – Are you going through personal change? Marriages, babies, divorces, deaths, aging and many other factors can create all kinds of outside pressures that weigh into your mental state. I worry that some people work too hard to segregate the personal and career thought process when they are inextricably tied.

As an example – when we moved to China, I didn’t move alone. The whole family had to adjust. While I got to go to work, my wife had to manage a home life with small children in an environment where nothing was familiar or easy. That stressed everyone.

Strategies for Managing

Build a learning plan. Write down what do you think you do/don’t know and build a plan to get smarter in a hurry. I’ve written about ways to structure your thinking and planning in the past. This isn’t complex; you just have to do it. Here are a few examples.

1 – Study. Based on what you decide you need to learn and your learning style, build an appropriate study plan. It could include reading up on a topic, taking a class on-line or in person. Whatever works. But be serious about it. Build your learning into your day-to-day goals.

2 – Get others to tell you stories – Go find people who know a lot, be nice to them and have them tell you what they know. Prior experience and wisdom are conveyed through stories. Go have people tell you some. It could be mentors, peers, customers. Whoever has knowledge to share…get them to share it. Make it easy and go to them.

3 – Take on specific work that may make you uncomfortable – I’m a big believer in experience. At some point it’s time to stop thinking and do something. Define some challenges to stretch yourself and learn. Think creatively. Take on something outside your normal scope and don’t be “above” certain activities.

I had no sales experience when I inherited a sales team. I could talk all I wanted, but going on sales calls and listening to my reps and customers taught me more than reading. It also helped me develop my own B***sh*t meter. A big risk in a new area is “not knowing what you don’t know”. This helps you figure it out.

4 – Manage expectations – Don’t overpromise or get boxed in when you aren’t experienced. You can’t always do this, but manage it where you can.

5 – Work Hard – If you want to be successful taking on new things, you have to accept that getting up each curve is part of your “night job”. It will simply take more time until you develop more experience. The more curves you’re on, the more time and energy.

Thanks, but I didn’t get to choose!

Same rules apply, only more so…


Particularly early in your career, your head is exploding with new experiences. That’s normal and exciting. But as you progress, think about how much you are really taking on at once.

I try to coach people to target a growth rate that allows “controlled maturation.” You want to actually be learning, not just surviving. And when you move to a next level or role, you want to be as prepared as possible to perform at that level.

So manage your learning curves.

What have I missed?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *