According to social philosopher Charles Handy, the progress of all things human follows a common pattern – the rise and fall of an S-shaped curve. This calls for periodic renewal and reinvention – a second curve.
The Path of Progress
In the first part of the curve, there’s a phase of investment and learning where progress dips and there is little to show for your efforts. Then there’s an upswing as efforts pay off. If all goes well, this keeps on rising. But there comes a time when the curve inevitably peaks and turns down. The decline is often is often gradual but will lead in time to failure.
Thus, we see the career that sours or ends in redundancy; the company that get into difficulty or goes bust; the institution that loses its way; the empire that goes into decline and fall.
But decadence is not inevitable. You can start a second curve … but only if you are able to challenge orthodoxies, re-examine assumptions and make a radical change of direction.
In his 2015 book The Second Curve, Handy updates his thinking and extends the model from individual careers to business, education, politics and society in general.
What has worked for much of the recent past will not work so well in the future. The lesson of the model is that you always need to be prepared to reinvent what you do.
If it ain’t broke …
Of course, when things are going well it is difficult to see why you should do things differently. Only when crisis looms does the need for change become clear. But it’s harder to transform what you do when you are up against it. Ideally you need to embark on a second curve while the first is still on the up – that is, while you still have momentum and resources.
Without the benefit of hindsight it’s difficult to call the peak of the curve. For example, Kodak, had a successful photographic business for decades and ignored the potential of digital photography until it was too late. It was the electronics companies that created the next curve and prospered while Kodak disappeared. In corporate disasters there are nearly always some who see where things are going awry but they may get little thanks for challenging the accepted wisdom.
Complacency is a danger signal. If things reach a crisis, change becomes inevitable but by then the options may be far more limited as resources drain away.
New Landscape of work
Profound changes to working life are starting to happen now as a result of big data, robots and artificial intelligence. Commentators such as Anthony Hilton suggest that up to a fifth of current jobs roles could disappear in the next five years as processes are transformed and as grunt work and repetitive tasks are taken over by machines. New types of work will emerge but many of the jobs of the future have not been invented yet.
Handy sees that the changing patterns of work will change the nature of the organisations and institutions that have given shape to working life. These institutions too will need to start second curves if they are to continue.
The demise of institutions that have provided direction and support will place a greater emphasis on self-responsibility. Decisions that in the past were taken for us – about education, skills, health, finances, etc. – will increasingly fall to the individual.
The emerging ‘Do-it-yourself’ society brings opportunities as well as risks. The rising generation particularly – with energy and enthusiasm, with different aspirations and less burdened by conventional thinking – will be in a position to flourish by pioneering new lifestyles and new ways of working.