Deltas and Curves
how we talk about professional growth in the law
“We now have this common language.”
We’re borrowing this quote from Whitney Johnson1 because she nails a primary benefit of the Delta Model: it creates a common language around which people can talk transparently and intentionally about competency and growth in the legal profession. Starting in law school.
We both spend most of our time teaching law students. And this has given us pretty clear insight into a primary challenge that starts in law school and continues as lawyers advance in the profession: a glaring lack of transparency around requisite competencies for 21st-century legal practice.2 As in, what exactly are they? How do we qualify and quantify them? How do we communicate about them?3
Step one in creating transparency, and hopefully the understanding that follows therefrom, is using a common language to talk about competency. And, this is precisely what the Delta Model empowers us to do: create understanding through transparency around what we mean when we talk about competencies for legal professionals in the 21st century.
In the quote above referencing “this common language,” Whitney Johnson was referring to her “S-Curve of Learning” which derives from Roger’s innovation diffusion curve. Johnson adapted the S-curve model to how we grow and learn professionally: we start out with no or very little knowledge (entering law school), followed by a period of hypergrowth (starting in law school) as we ascend the curve. We experience the “sweet spot” on our way to the top of the curve, as we achieve higher levels of the requisite competencies. Ultimately, we achieve mastery.
The S-Curve of Learning describes how people, including lawyers, develop expertise.
We’ll dig deeper into Johnson’s S-Curve of Learning and why we view it as a valuable complement to the Delta Model in a future post. For now, we simply want to emphasize a principal point of Johnson’s: an organization’s growth starts with learning and growth at the individual level. And, how can we support individuals’ learning and growth? By developing and using a common language – one that everyone involved can use to create the transparency and understanding that empowers individuals to meaningfully plan for and execute a strategy for growth. And, for lawyers, this planning and execution start in law school.
The foundational tool: a common understanding
This is why we believe the Delta Model operates as a foundational tool for any legal organization seeking to truly empower its people to learn, grow, and thrive optimally. Especially in this liminal age we currently inhabit. The Delta Model, and Design Your Delta tools we’re creating to activate the model, offer this foundation by creating a common understanding.
How can you start climbing your own S-curve of learning if you don’t even know what the requisite skills and knowledge are, to reach competency (much less mastery)? And how can others support you in your growth if you don’t share a vocabulary to talk about such things?
Certainly, simply having a shared language and understanding won’t get us where we need to be. But it’s where we start. The Delta launches us on our curves.
10 January 2022
Whitney Johnson created the S-Curve of Learning, described in her book Disrupt Yourself (re-released 2019), and applies the S-Curve to organizational learning and growth in her new book Smart Growth (forthcoming January 2022). Johnson is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, most recently “Manage Your Organization as a Portfolio of Learning Curves” (HBR 2022). Prior to her work on professional growth, Johnson co-founded the Disruptive Innovation Fund with Clayton Christensen.
In Cat’s Fall 2021 Legal Problem Solving course, students tackled the challenge, “How might we make law school better?” and in the process of surfacing problems in the current legal education system, an overwhelming number of law student stakeholders expressed great frustration over the lack of transparency that exists across the law school experience, seemingly intentionally. Universally, students found this lack of transparency hinders their professional learning and growth.
The well-documented lack of diversity in the legal profession (see Profile of the Legal Profession 2021 via the ABA for recent numbers), and the profoundly negative impact this has across our society— starting with law students from underrepresented groups—demands that we start asking and answering these questions in a meaningful, transparent way. We hinder law student and lawyer success when we “hide the ball.” Or reveal the ball only to certain people.