Mastering the exponential effect of performance improvement


The Western Bulldogs in the Australian Football League (AFL) have ‘suddenly‘ improved beyond most commentators’ expectations. Gerard Healy, a legend of the AFL and a commentator for the Fox Sports Network repeated several times during the Western Bulldogs victory over the Adelaide Crows, “Where has this improvement come from?“.

Performance improvement of any kind does not occur in straight lines. Rather it occurs in curves. These curves are not well understood.Yes For Success, Gary Ryan

The performance improvement of the Western Bulldogs over the past six weeks is not due to any single thing that the club’s coaches and players did seven weeks ago. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of learning over a 20 month period. It is also the effect of mastering a model; a theory from the head coach Brendan McCartney about how the game should be played. No doubt, as a first time senior coach Brendan has been constantly developing his model.

That said, when reviewing his post-match comments over the past two seasons he has been very consistent about the fact that the players have been learning and that the longer the players are able to stick with the plan throughout matches the more likely the team would start to see on-field success. Over time this approach requires that the players have more and more faith in the model and need to be able to see that, at least in patches during a game, the model works. The coaches have to be able to identify these patches and to show the players the evidence that the model really does work. This process in itself is very challenging because there may not be a lot of evidence to show at various stages of the learning journey.

The challenge with curves and performance improvement is that at the beginning of the curve time can pass without any noticeable performance improvement. The flat part of the curve is the most challenging part of this journey because pressure can build. While time is ticking the outcome of the work you are doing isn’t producing the desired results, and as more time passes people start to question the model. The short-term focus of our world can kill a model, even if it was just about to hit the ‘performance curve‘; a seemingly sudden spike in performance. The challenge is that you never really know how long the flat part of the curve will last. One thing you can hang your hat on is that you never reach the exponential part of a curve, where performance improves at a seemingly fast rate, without first going through the flat part of the curve. This is a fact of performance improvement.

This is where leaders have to have absolute faith in the model and their model needs to be based on experience.  When everyone else starts to say that your model doesn’t work and they have the short term evidence to prove it, you need to stay true to your model and plan and stick with it. Seth Godin in his book The Dip calls this pushing through the curve.

These performance improvement curves happen everywhere where learning and/or change are present. They occur with a child’s reading and writing, with a salesperson’s selling methods, with your fitness improvements, learning a new software program and just about anything where performance improvements are desired.

If you don’t understand these dynamics you will kill models before their time. Moving onto a new model in the short-term doesn’t guarantee results; instead it guarantees a new flat part of a new curve to learn your way through. This delays rather than creates success.

If you have faith in your model and the track record to know that it will work, have the courage to stick with it to create the improvements you desire. Once you have mastered your model a new learning challenge will arise – and you’ll have to move on to a new updated model…there is little time to rest for those seeking genuine performance improvement!

Over time how have you experienced the exponential effect of performance improvement?


Gary Ryan enables organisations, leaders and talented professionals to move Beyond Being Good.