Book Review: Jumping the S-Curve

Jumping the S-Curve by Paul Nunes and Tim Breene, Harvard Business Review Press: Boston, MA (2011). 270 + v pages, $29.95.

Outside the realm of most technical literature that chemical engineers might typically encounter, "Jumping the S-Curve" offers insights into how high-performing companies function. Individuals working in technology fields will find this book important to help identify top performing companies for employment.

Part One of "Jumping the S-Curve" describes the characteristics of successful businesses - those that have big market insights, build technical competencies, and retain "serious talent." Chemical engineers will find Chapter 4, Worthy of Serious Talent, the most relevant since we are passionate about our chosen work. Nunes and Breene identify subject matter experts as top companies "for whom work is not a job but rather a source of personal pride (p. 78)." Such serious talent possesses not just the right skills but also the right attitude.

Is your company high performing?

How do you know if you're working at a high performing company? Top firms employ highly engaged people who trust management and the organization. Those that lack trust will leave the company, introducing a downward spiral in the overall competence of the organization along with a decreased ability to provide quality products and services. Top performing companies do not tolerate low quality work, even in the case of misguided loyalty, and especially not to advance a political agenda.

Successful employees demonstrate skills before they are promoted through stretch goals and assignments. Teams are mutually accountable for one another and act through a "culture of honor" instead of "culture of law."

Of course, chemical engineers are smart, capable, and ambitious; and therefore, difficult to manage. In Chapter 8, Nunes and Breene offer some tips on how companies can retain talent and develop individuals for lifelong careers.

Most companies experience financial growth through the so-called "S-curve" over time, with slow sales early, followed by a period of accelerating revenues, and finally a flattening of growth as the product or industry matures. As companies grow, they often add hierarchy and bureaucracy to contain operational costs. Flattening growth in low and average performing companies is accompanied by decreased R&D spending and declining employee training investments that result in short-term earnings per share increases. Yet in high performing companies, recruiting and training new employees continues throughout all economic and industry cycles.

Employees are given a broad range of experiences early in their careers at top performing companies and management encourages job rotations so young talent can gain diverse knowledge of the business operations. Most high performing companies have transparent and well-defined career paths and encourage a certain degree of autonomy. 3M and Google are both famous for the "time to think" policies that have led to innovations like the Post-It note and Gmail.

While "Jumping the S-Curve" is definitely a business book at its heart, I would encourage chemical engineers to take a look at this easy-to-read text for insights on how top performing companies manage and grow skilled employees.

See the website Jumping the S-Curve for more information about this book.

How does your employer measure up to high-performer standards?

Image: Flickr/Hamad AL-Mohannna


Thanks Teresa for doing this review. I think book reviews like this are really helpful for our community. Glad your back!