books business growth

Book review: The Second Curve, by Charles Handy

Charles Handy is best known as a management theorist, with a string of books on organisations and structures. In later life he broadened out into philosophy and philanthropy. (I’ve written before about how Handy has set himself an ‘enough’ point and gives away any extra income.) Now in his 80s, his latest book feels like the wisdom of the elders.

The Second Curve: Thoughts on reinventing society is a series of essays on different aspects of society. They’ve been carefully kept to three thousand words each to keep things moving, and you have the author’s permission to skip around. Chapters are “to be savoured a la carte, depending on your interests” rather than read straight through. They deal with work, the internet, markets, growth, debt, democracy and various other topics besides.

What unifies these themes is the metaphor of the ‘second curve’. The theory is that an S-shape curve is a recurring pattern in life and business. Things start slowly and then growth accelerates. The curve peaks, hits a plateau and then begins to decline. We can then either slide down the S curve, or initiate a second curve – ideally when things are going well, and there is energy to invest again.

There are various applications. A successful business will time its product cycle so that new areas of growth kick in before old ones tail off. Careers advisors might suggest changing jobs when things are going well, rather than moving from a place of boredom or frustration on the latter half of the sigmoid. The challenge is to look ahead and act before the decline, beginning a new course alongside the old one and then taking over.

Handy calls the second curve idea a “low definition concept, imprecise in detail but unexpectedly revealing in the way we look at things”. It serves as a general framing for thinking anew about society. How would we begin a second curve in democracy, for example? In Britain, that might be a federal model. In business, Handy imagines more democratic businesses with high rates of employee ownership, and less focus on shareholder value. On the work front, could a new generation of empowered portfolio workers and small businesses pick up from the decline of manufacturing?

Our view of progress is in need of a new story too. “A second curve badly needs a more satisfactory measure of a society’s growth” says Handy, moving beyond blunt GDP towards something more holistic. “Growth should always be the means to a greater purpose rather than an end in itself” he writes. A second curve would be about “becoming better without becoming bigger”, which is essentially the topic of the book I’m working on right now.

The book has a diverse selection of topics, and it’s fair to say that some of these chapters work better than others. In some cases there’s a clear opportunity for a new direction, and I liked his thoughts on democracy, debt and business. Others feel more vague, and chapters on loneliness or education feel more like collections of general thoughts. Every once in a while there’s a mis-step. Having coined the term ‘portfolio worker’ himself, Handy rather idealises freelancing and glosses over the issues around the gig economy. On the whole though, this is a humble and thoughtful book from a man who seems genuinely concerned with passing on whatever wisdom he has to the next generation.

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