Lessons for business and society - Charles Handy explains the thinking behind his book The Second Curve
PUBLISHED: 17:15 09 December 2015 | UPDATED: 17:20 09 December 2015
Elizabeth Handy firstname.lastname@example.org
Charles Handy is a pioneer of management theory in business. Through books such as Understanding Organisations and Gods of Management he has outlined theories which have been embraced by both businesses and academics.
A true partnership
Although writing can be a solitary business, Charles Handy said that a partnership with his wife Elizabeth, a professional photographer, has underpinned his success.
At one point the couple agreed a ‘rotation’ arrangement where each would focus on their careers for six months of the year while supported by the other.
Nowadays they collaborate on a range of photographic documentary projects.
“You tend to work best with other people because you challenge each other,” he explains. “That’s why teams are more effective than individuals.
“My wife is a brilliant business woman. I can’t work without talking to her about my ideas and testing them on her first, and she needs me to comment on her pictures from an outsider’s point of view.”
And many of those insights have been formed from his home in South Norfolk on the outskirts of Diss where he has drafted and crystallised many of his theories.
Now in his 80s, this year he published a new book, The Second Curve, a collection of essays, which looks at how some of his ideas can be applied beyond the business world and into wider society, including government, health and education.
At its heart is a simple idea - the Second Curve - which you can see drawn across this page.
But what is it?
“I came out with the second curve idea about 20 years ago, but at that time I didn’t realise how important it was going to be to my thinking, because it really seems to me to explain an awful lot about what is going on or should be going on in our lives and society generally at the moment,” he explains.
“They are ‘S’ curves on their side. An S curve on its side dips down at first. Anything worth doing requires a bit of investment, and education. Hopefully it grows and success begins to appear and the curve goes upward.
“I maintain that all things human in the end outlive their usefulness and become less useful as things change around the world, so the curve dips down.
“The danger is we don’t notice this until it’s too late.
The idea of the second curve is that you start a new curve, before the first one peaks.
“It has to be before, because only then do you have the resources, and the energy to prepare and cover the dip in that second curve, the necessary preparation, re-investment and re-education.”
It is a compelling concept, and in fact the idea can apply to individuals looking at their career options as much as organisations.
A good example of The Second Curve in business, which he quotes, is Steve Jobs and Apple, and the way the company has reinvented itself from a business making desktop computers to selling i-phones and streaming music.
There are other organisations too, he believes that would do well to adopt the approach, from schools, to the European Union itself.
But how long does it take to make the transition?
“That takes about two years in my experience, whether you are an individual or organisation, or probably longer if you are a government,” he adds.
“When people read the book, they instantly think about themselves and they say ‘gosh’ does this apply to me? Yes, it almost certainly does. Even if you have your second curve, you still have a third curve.
“I am on my fourth curve, but then I am pretty old – it never stops.
“The reason I wrote the book really was my publisher said this applies much more widely than you think. It applies to government and businesses.
“The whole of the European Union has got to rethink its future now with millions of people coming to join us, which won’t stop.
First of all they are coming because they are being pushed out of their own countries. Climate change is going to drive more people north.
“We need a whole new second curve thinking about Europe. It always starts with the individual.”
The book certainly makes you think and is underpinned by a philosophical tone, so it is no surprise that he admits that his works have been influenced by the ideas of Aristotle.
“I think it’s terribly important you have to think about what on earth are you going to do with your life,” he says. “This comes down to the big ‘why’ question, which is the most important question of our times really.
Why are you doing anything? Why are organisations doing anything, why do governments exist?
“And the why for individuals is very important. That is why in the book and in my life I went back and found Aristotle, who tends to crop up a lot in my life because he thought about all these things so long ago.
“He said that the purpose of life basically is fulfilment, You want to feel you are doing the best with what you have been given – he would add for the sake of others, because if you were just doing it for yourself, it’s less satisfying.
“I translate Aristotle’s message as doing the best at what you are best at for the good of others. Now the snag is like all philosophers he seems to be giving an answer, but he’s actually giving a question, because only you can decide what you are best at and whether you are doing your best with it, and whether it has contact with anybody else.
“In the book I talk about golden seeds, that everybody in my view has something that’s unique to them. The problem is to find it, then water it and fertilise it to make it grow.
“In my case I discovered it rather in the middle of my life. I was very conventional I thought I should get a job as an executive, then a managing director.
“But actually it wasn’t me, but then I thought I’d be a professor and a teacher. I was ok but the bit I liked about it, I discovered was the writing bit.
“Then eventually my wife said to me, you want to be a writer, you’d better get on with it and stop trying to pretend you are a manager or whatever.
“By then I was 49. A lot of people find I think in their mid 40s there’s been some bit of them that’s been neglected, which they’d like to give more time to. Then they should do it. It requires courage. On the second curve principle, they are probably on a successful peak of their previous career. They are doing rather well. They’ve discovered they can do it and it’s boring.
“They are having to give up that bit for two years, while they grow the next bit. That’s not comfortable.
“It’s best to do it when your children have left home and the house is paid off, but then it’s probably too late in life. So you have got to take a risk and you have got to find a way of bringing enough money in to cover the essentials.
“But at least you would have switched from your earlier definition of success, which was making more money and having a bigger job to doing what you uniquely can do. The money is necessary, but it’s not the whole thing.
“It’s tough on your family – they need to go along with you as my wife did. Children don’t mind, they don’t understand that there are alternatives. We were counting the pennies for quite a bit. Then as always the second curve started and things got better.
“The danger with all second curves is that you leave it too late.
If you try to start a second curve allowing for that dip – if you try to draw it after the first curve has turned down you actually can’t do it.
“The best thing to do is to start it before you need it and that’s where the leadership comes in.”