What Goes Up… The S-Curve and it’s many applications.

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Powerful Ideas
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By Richard Martin, Expert in Business Readiness and Exploiting Change

One of the most useful ideas for conceptualizing any kind of change process is the S-curve. Perhaps you’ve seen one of these before. It looks like this:


The S-curve is the way natural and human phenomena grow and develop over time. For instance, the plot of a growth of bacteria or yeast in a laboratory follows the exact S-curve. Technically, it’s known as a logistic function, and when we plot it as a rate of growth, rather than cumulative growth, it forms a bell curve, although it doesn’t follow a normal, Gaussian, distribution. In other words, when something starts growing or spreading, it first starts very slowly, then it speeds up until it hits it hits a maximum, after which the growth/spread rate slows down until it basically tends to zero.

The S-curve approximates the cumulative growth or spread of just about any natural or man-made phenomenon, such as:

  • Penetration of a new market segment
  • Growth of new product/service category
  • Learning stages
  • Interest in topics
  • Abilities (which tend to plateau after a time)
  • Etc.

One of the more relevant business applications is in strategy formulation and execution. Take a look at the following S-Curve application. It shows how we can map the different phases of a product or market life cycle onto the S-curve. This gives an intuitive understanding that all good things must come to an end or, as I imply in the title of this piece, “What goes up, must (eventually) come down (or at least level off).”


New products or markets start as ideas, often as an external start up. I pluralize this because there should be a relatively high number of “experiments” and trials underway at any one time within a diversified company. Another strategy is to watch out for promising startups outside the business (or in an internal “skunkworks”) and then invest in them or simply acquire them once they start entering their rapid growth phase. Companies should have businesses (various combinations of product-market mix) in all stages of the life cycle in order to ensure a constant stream of growth generating ideas and strategic business units.

Another important phenomenon to note is the presence of a decline phase. Unless there is continuing investment in a business line or concept, it will eventually go into decline. We don’t necessarily know when, but we DO know it will happen at some point. This is another reason to be constantly replenishing the pipeline at the earlier life cycle stages of startup and rapid growth. The capital needed to invest in future ideas and growth will often come from the “milk cows” that are businesses in the maturity or plateau stage, although the latter can also provide a good source of financial capital through divestment.

© 2016 Richard Martin. Reproduction, forwarding, and quotes are permitted with proper attribution.

  1. […] and dynamics that surround us. We can use them in making general predictions and, along with the S-curve phenomenon I described in a previous post, we have two very powerful tools and concepts for understanding the world around us. Moreover, […]

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  3. […] What Goes Up: The S-Curve and its Many Applications […]

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