The Second Curve
A feel for Handy’s style can be gained from the opening of his autobiography:
Navigating a world moving toward unimagined futureS
Why did I write this book?
Who would I like to read it? ¶¶¶
‘SIGN HERE, PLEASE,’ the man said, ‘and put the date, but be sure you write the year in full.
We can get confused between the centuries here.’
He was the clerk of works at Windsor Castle and had just handed me an ancient key that went with my new job.
I smiled at what I thought was a joke but when I looked up he was obviously serious.
I should have been warned.
I was there to be Warden, an appropriately Trollopian title I later felt, of a Study and Conference Centre focusing on the ethical and value issues that would face individuals and society in the future.
I was fascinated by the history of the castle.
The house that we were given to live in had been built for the young Henry III in 1216.
The whole place reeked of history.
I had hoped to create a nest of creative thinking in this treasury of the past but soon realized that history and tradition can be a prison as well as a thing to be treasured.
I discovered that if something has been done that way for centuries it needs a looming disaster to allow any change from the status quo.
There is some sense in that but it means that progress is slow, often a series of unplanned responses to emergencies rather than a planned pursuit of a vision.
It was frustrating for this new arrival who wanted to build on that history but felt stymied by the guardians of tradition. ¶¶¶
Having left Windsor I realized that much of life, even outside the castle, was governed by the same principle of ‘If it works don’t fix it.’
Exhortations that it won’t work like that much longer, or could work better, fall on deaf ears.
The status quo, people kept telling me, has to be better than the unknown.
If there has to be change it should be ‘better than yesterday’, not different.
But society is not working as it should.
Living is getting harder, not easier, for most.
Inequality is growing.
Wealth is not trickling down as it used to do.
Nor is it trickling up, as in theory it should do, because consumers are ensnared in debt, spending too much on their houses, with too little left over to fuel the economy with their spending.
Too many of the customs, practices and institutions of society were designed for a time that has passed.
The internet and its corollaries are revolutionizing much of our lives, but taking the guts out of many of our institutions as they do so.
The Western world seems to have gone into retirement mode, settling for a cautious life after the financial scares of the last decade, hoping that the comfortable life we had become used to will soon return if we only keep our nerve.
The reality, however, is that we can neither bring back the past nor prolong the present indefinitely.
When the world changes around us we have to change as well, or, as Tancredi famously told his uncle the Prince in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, ‘For things to remain the same, things will have to change.’
Unfortunately, bold thinking has become suspect or too risky among those supposedly responsible for our future.
Governments tweak and twist and adapt but are more concerned to stay in power than to conjure up new visions and new possibilities. ¶¶¶
This is happening at a time when many of our assumptions about how our lives work are being turned upside down by new technologies and new values.
Forget for a moment the big dramas of international affairs, it is our daily lives that are going to change the most.
This book is dedicated to my young grandchildren who will grow into a world very different from the one that I encountered but who are being prepared for it as if nothing will be very different from the world that I knew, that there will be jobs for them if they put their heads down and pass their exams, jobs and exams not that different from the ones I encountered 60 or more years ago.
That is a recipe for disappointment and disillusion.
For one thing, half of today’s jobs will already be gone by 2030, forecasters say, but how then do you prepare young people for a world that does not yet exist and cannot be foreseen? ¶¶¶
I confess that have little idea how my grandchildren or their contemporaries will be earning their living 30 years from now, how society will be organized around them as more and more of life happens virtually, whether the nation state will still rule their lives or will have been replaced by city states and confederations, how they will measure success in their lives or how they will choose to live.
Anything that is based on information, be it books, music or entertainment, will effectively be free (the economics of information), but a world of free goods offers few paying jobs.
If they do find or, better, create any work that pays they will need to keep doing it well into their eighties so they had better enjoy it. (Planning for the Second Half of their lives) ¶¶¶
Those young people are already living in a world dominated by information at their fingertips and contacts at the press of a button or just the sound of their voice.
This technology can only get faster, better and easier to use, but with consequences that are hard to foresee.
Will the new technology make their lives simpler or more confusing?
Where will they hide, if they need to, when too much information or too much communication becomes uncomfortable?
Will the flow of information tempt them to become indecisive and reactive because it is too easy to delay decisions until you know more, and there always could be more, or to fill your time responding to the incoming messages on whatever gadget sits in your hand, with no time left over for original thought or action?
Can you rely on friends or colleagues that you only meet virtually?
will algorithms rule our lives, with formulae and programs for every eventuality?
The uncertainties thrown up by the new media are worrying but technological change often produces more questions than solutions. ¶¶¶
Already, as I see it, too much of all that is new favors the few and not the many.
Society is out of balance.
Power is unequally distributed.
In business, the information economy is turning into a winner-takes-all one, where the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google dominate and gobble up any daring newcomer.
We need to challenge orthodoxy, dream a little, think unreasonably and dare the impossible if we are going to have any chance of making the future work for all of us, not just those favored few.
That was the origin of the thinking behind the principle of the Second Curve, the key strand of this book.
The message of the Second Curve is that to move forward in many areas of life it is sometimes necessary to change radically, to start a new course that will be different from the existing one, often requiring a whole new way of looking at familiar problems (challenges, situations), what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift.
I explain the idea more fully in the first essay.
The real problem is that the change has to be initiated while the first curve is still going.
That means that those who have been in charge of that first curve have to begin to think very differently about the future, or, more often, let others lead the way up the new curve.
That is something that does not come easily.
Why change when all is well, we ask ourselves.
Change is easier to envisage when crisis looms but harder to implement with resources and time running out.
The good news for the Second Curve is that, despite the recent upheavals in some parts of the world, things have been going well for the great majority of people over the last half-century.
If we compare life now with life as it was then, the human race is healthier and wealthier, and lives longer and better, than ever before in history.
The average person everywhere earns three times as much as they did 50 years ago and the array of things that they can buy with that money would amaze my parents’ generation were they alive to witness it.
A speaker at a recent conference in the hills of the Tyrol wondered why anyone there would want to live anywhere other than Europe today, despite all its internal wranglings.
What this means, according to the theory of the Second Curve, is that these are now the perfect conditions for rethinking the ways in which we run society, for making the most of the abundance that we have created for ourselves.
Complacency is a sign of looming danger but also of opportunity.
Doing nothing risks losing what you have.
In the essays that follow I try to apply the idea of the Second Curve to a range of issues, from capitalism and government to education and the definition of the good life, with much in between.
There is no ideology behind my thinking other than the philosophy of that Second Curve, that we urgently need new directions in all the arenas of life.
One very clear new curve emerged as I wrote, namely the need for an increasing emphasis on self-responsibility.
My grandchildren and their like are going to be on their own out there, much more so than I was.
We can no longer rely on the institutions of education and the workplace to prepare us for life and look after us during it.
It was too easy in the past to let others direct our life.
I passed from school to university to business or profession.
In each I was told what to do and how to do it.
That will no longer happen and if it does the directions may well be wrong.
There will inevitably be less loyalty to those institutions.
They will care less for us and we for them.
That is because most contracts will have to be more temporary, partly because the institutions themselves will be less permanent, and our stay in them more fleeting.
Our communities will be those of shared interest rather than of a common place or institution.
Communities of interest are more fun and more collegial but feel less responsible for their members’ other lives.
Outside the community everyone must fend for themselves.
Relationships and marriages today sometimes seem more like communities of interest than of shared responsibility, so that when the common interests die so does the relationship.
When insecurity is rife, each must make their own safe harbor.
Life won’t be easy.
I have not delved into the arena of national party politics, nor will I be discussing wider and bigger issues such as climate change, the future of the European Union, the rise of China and the schisms within Islam.
These are clearly important matters that will have an impact on the lives of future generations, but as individuals we can have only limited influence, if any, on their outcomes.
More honestly, I have to recognize that the topics are beyond my area of competence.
Like everyone else, I have my opinions but they are worth no more than those of anyone else.
I could say, for example, that the real challenge of climate change lies in making the right adjustments to what is already irreversible, even if we can perhaps slow down the rate of change.
I could predict that most of us will end up living in air conditioned cities, rather like Singapore, and grow to like it, as I did when I lived there.
But I know more knowledgeable experts who tell me that am too pessimistic and they may be right.
I could predict that Europe will end up with an inner federation of the original six countries and an outer ring made up of a confederation of nation states, but, again, could be wrong.
I could predict that China will eventually go federal with a strong but small centre and many autonomous regions, but even if were right there is little that could do about it other than to observe.
For Islam I can only watch, worry and reflect that when religion becomes tribal it can go viral.
Leaving these big issues aside, there are challenges enough in the things that we can usefully influence in some way.
The book therefore is a collection of essays on these challenges, short pieces too, because in years gone by I regularly wrote and broadcast a Thought for the Day on the BBC’s morning radio program Today I learnt much from writing those Thoughts.
I learnt, for instance, that brevity focuses the mind, of both the listener and the author.
We were allowed no more than 450 words two minutes and forty-five seconds.
It wasn’t easy.
I always wanted more time, more words, but those Thoughts were perfectly adapted to the bite-sized world that we all now live in.
Radio may allow an uninterrupted two and a bit minutes, but television wants a new image every 20 seconds and tweeters have to make do with 140 characters.
I now read executive summaries of essays and reports and only dip into the main body if have to.
My study is piled high with books I that I have bought with the idea of reading them diligently and thoroughly until the day comes when I know that won’t.
I add them to my overflowing bookshelves which are now more truthfully a visual display of good intentions.
Instead I read reviews of new books in the Sunday papers and kid myself that I need not then buy the actual book, or read it if I do.
I used to plan my own books to be short enough to be read on a plane flight from London to Los Angeles, believing that only then would any of my likely readers actually have the requisite amount of uninterrupted time.
But now, with onboard telephones and the ever-present BlackBerry or iPhone, even those quiet periods have been curtailed. ¶¶¶
So my books have to get shorter, or, at least, the individual chapters have to be cut down to size if want busy people to read them.
I have been generous and allowed myself around 3,000 words for each essay in this book.
There are 16 of them in total, short for a book but enough, I hope, to make one pause and reflect.
Being short, they have to avoid the detail in order to concentrate on the principles at stake.
That is both their defect and their advantage.
They draw on my own experience of life as much as on research, which makes them more personal than authoritative, but, perhaps, more interesting as a result.
That stories help was something else that learnt from those Thoughts for the Day, stories that illustrate the message, modern parables.
I claim no special expertise.
I think of myself as a social philosopher and philosophers tend to pose questions rather than provide precise answers.
It is not, therefore, a prescriptive book.
I do not pretend to know what the Second Curve should be in each scenario, although offer some provocative suggestions, intended more as invitations to my readers to think beyond the familiar.
Sometimes even the questions, let alone the answers, are too important to be left to the experts, who tend to look at the trees rather than the wood, missing the big changes that are looming while they concentrate on the particulars.
Some of the essays, I realize, may be of more immediate interest than others.
It is not, therefore, a book to be necessarily read straight through from cover to cover, but to be savored more à la carte, depending on your interests at the time.
Those who are familiar with my earlier writings may notice some ideas and metaphors reappearing here and there, including the concept of the Second Curve itself.
These low-definition concepts worked for me then, 25 years ago, and reconfigured for a different world they still, hope, illuminate some of our dilemmas.
Looking back now, after eight decades of life, I wonder how it was that, for the first three decades at least, seldom questioned the way things worked, or were supposed to work, in Britain and in much of the rest of the world.
I assumed that because things had always been that way that was the way they were meant to be; that those in authority knew what they were doing and were well advised.
I know better now.
Although I am hugely impressed with most of the teenagers whom I meet, I doubt that they are much better informed than I was about the world that lies ahead of them or the very real dilemmas that they will face in deciding how to live their lives.
I would like to encourage them
to challenge the status quo whenever they meet it,
to question conventional wisdom
and to be bold in shaping their own lives.
That said, I would urge their elders to do likewise if they can stand back from their busy lives to see where they are heading.
One of the purposes of the Windsor centre of which I was warden was to bring together, over a weekend, some of the opinion-formers of the nation, those at the top of the professions, of business, politics and the armed forces.
The intention was to help them to focus on the big ethical and moral issues facing society.
The discussions were fascinating and the people interesting but I found that they were more anxious to expound their own ideas than to listen to those of the others, let alone to change their own minds.
There was no thought of Second Curves in those meetings.
We therefore decided to add another set of discussions, this time inviting the rising stars of the next generation.
These people had no declared positions that they needed to defend; they were more willing to listen and to contemplate alternative views.
The scenarios they came up with were more exciting, at least to me.
The hope was that they would recall these conversations when they in their turn were in a position to influence events.
That may have been too optimistic.
The pace of change in a democracy is glacial, to be measured in generations not years.
Governments may often know what they should do, but not how to get re-elected after doing it.
Some of the suggestions offered in the course of the Windsor discussions and many of my own proposals in this book would need a dictatorship to bring them about, or at least a new generation impatient for change and long primed with ideas of what that change should be.
Democratic governments can only move when they know that the move will be widely accepted.
As a result the directions of change often come from outside the parliamentary system, not from within it; from people like us, in short.
It is, therefore, to the next generation that this book is addressed.
My hope is that the book will
kindle their curiosity,
provoke and stir their imagination,
and encourage discussion among friends and colleagues.
It was John Maynard Keynes who said, ‘I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.’
David Hume had earlier said that truth proceeds from argument among friends.
I agree with both of them.
My best delight is to debate with friends of a evening around a supper table, well supplied with wine.
We can change our world by talking, to each other.
If this short book can provide the stimulus for more of those conversations I shall be well satisfied. ¶¶¶
My aim, however, is to stimulate not to prescribe for I know only too well that the devil is in the detail, and that others will know the details better than I.
Navigating a world moving toward unimagined futureS
The Second Curve
What is it?
How do we find it?
THINKING ABOUT IT, I must have been a very irritating husband, in more ways than one, no doubt, but principally because I kept changing my job just when things were going well.
After ten years with Shell I had reached the small country manager stage, the first step to greater things, when I decided that the life of an oil executive was not for me, that I would rather teach managers than be one.
The old saying ‘if you can’t do it, teach it’ probably applied, if I am honest.
To Shell’s surprise, and even perhaps disappointment, I turned down the posting and resigned.
After two years of readjusting and retraining I joined the London Business School:
six years later I reached the exalted rank of a full professor with my first book published and the holy grail of tenure (guaranteed employment until retirement) granted,
only to decide that it was not what I wanted to spend my life doing.
That was to be a full-time writer.
It took four years in one more job to build up the courage to cut that umbilical cord that ties one to the womb of an organization.
Only then did I feel that I had come into my own.
Just in time, too, or I would have ended up in Davy’s Bar.
I have often, down the years, told my Story of the road to Davy’s Bar, and its imagery, along with its implications, still haunts me.
This is the story as it happened then, for Davy’s Bar is no longer there:
I was driving through the Wicklow Mountains, the bare but beautiful hills outside Dublin, when I lost my way.
I saw a man walking his dog so I stopped beside him and asked if he could point me on the way to Avoca, where I was heading.
‘Surely, he said, and its dead easy.
You go straight ahead up this hill then down again for a mile or so until you get to a stream with a bridge over it;
on the other side of it you’ll see Davy’s Bar;
you can’t miss it, it is very bright red.
Have you got that now?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
‘Straight up, then down, until I come to Davy’s Bar.’
‘Great: well, half a mile before you get there, turn right up the hill and that will take you to Avoca.’
I had thanked him and driven off before I realized the strange Irish logic of his directions.
But its message stuck with me until I started talking about the challenge of the Second Curve, that turn to the right up the hill which you will often have passed without knowing it was where you should have gone.
I have met too many organizations (and, indeed, individuals) parked in the equivalent of Davy’s Bar, having realized, too late, that they have missed the turn to the future and can only look back regretfully and drown their sadness with a mournful drink or two, while they reminisce about the good times and what might have been.
Unwittingly, in my career, I was riding a sequence of roads up the hill, having turned each time before I got to the equivalent of Davy’s Bar.
When I drew the curves out, my up-and-down trajectory began to make sense.
Since then the curves have influenced much of my thinking about change and, more generally, the future.
The idea of the sigmoid curves, as they are properly called, is a metaphor.
Metaphors are a great aid to understanding, not to be dismissed because they are not strictly scientific.
They are low-definition concepts, imprecise in detail but unexpectedly revealing in the way we look at things.
There will be many more of them in this book.
The sigmoid curve is an S-shaped curve on its side, like this:
The sigmoid curve is a mathematical concept.
Used as a metaphor it is a familiar idea to many.
The phrases ‘learning curve’ and ‘ahead of the curve’ refer to it and many businesses use it when projecting the future.
What is not always realized, however, is that it is much more than that.
It is the line of all things human, of our own lives, of organizations and businesses, of governments, empires and alliances, of democracy itself and its many and varied institutions.
In each case there is, or was, an initial period of investment be it financial, of education (in the case of our own lives) or of trial and experiment — a period when the input exceeds the output, when the line of the S dips down.
More goes out than comes in.
Then, as results begin to show and glimmers of progress emerge, the line moves up.
If all goes well it continues to rise, but the time comes when, inevitably, the curve peaks and begins its descent.
The descent can be prolonged, and often is, but oblivion waits at the end.
There seems to be no escape from the sigmoid curve.
The only variable is the length of the curve.
The Roman Empire lasted 400 years, but finally reached its end.
Other empires lasted less long before they dipped, as the British Empire did and the American one surely will.
Governments and dictatorships ultimately outstay their welcome.
On a smaller scale, businesses used to last on average for 40 years before they collapsed or were taken over; now the average lifespan appears to have dropped to a mere 14 years.
The speed of the curve seems to be accelerating although we humans seem to have stretched out our own personal curves to 90 years or more.
There is, however, still oblivion of some sort at the end.
It could be a depressing prospect.
But it need not be.
There can always be a Second Curve, like this:
Obvious, you might think, but there is a problem.
The nasty and often fatal snag is that the Second Curve has to start before the first curve peaks.
Only then are there enough resources — of money, time and energy — to cover that first initial dip, the investment period.
If you try to draw the Second Curve as one taking off after the peak, when that first curve is turning down, it doesn’t work, on paper or in reality; the Second Curve never gets up high enough unless you give it a sharp kink.
The problem, however, is knowing when that first line is about to peak.
Psychologically, when everything is going well it is reasonable to expect it to continue, other things being equal.
Why not project the present into the future when it is so obviously successful?
Success, however, puts blinkers on us, discourages doubt, reinforces itself.
Only in retrospect can we look back and say, ‘That was it, that was the peak, that was when we should have started to think anew.’
Unfortunately, being wise after the event is too late to be useful.
First-curve success can blind one to the possibilities of a new technology or a new market, allowing others to seize the initiative.
Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School termed it the problem of disruptive innovation, citing, among many others, the case of Kodak, who ignored the possibilities of digital photography until it was too late.
They allowed outsiders to intrude and, in my words, create the new curve instead of them.
New technology is offering the chance of those new curves every day.
Spotting them and seizing them is the new strategic challenge for education, health and government as well as business.
Yet when your income, productivity or reputation is falling it is hard to contemplate anything new.
Anyone who has experienced unemployment will remember how hard it was to summon up the confidence or the energy, let alone the wherewithal, to make an investment in something potentially risky.
Governments find this as hard as individuals, which is why the Keynesian advice to invest your way out of recession is intuitively so difficult to act on.
When money is short it is counter-intuitive to spend more.
Second-Curve thinking comes hard when times are hard.
In business it may mean competing with yourself, even cannibalizing your existing product.
Do it instead when times are good: before the downturn.
Some institutions, and some people, do struggle up to the second line from a descending curve but only with tremendous effort and great sacrifice, in order to generate what is needed to cover that initial dip in the curve.
For organizations it means taking a knife to the headcount and the overheads, regrouping the organization, which often involves the replacement of the top management, and, most painful of all, discarding some cherished products and markets.
In practice this only happens when the concern is taken over by another business with fewer qualms about the necessary surgery.
Private-equity firms could justify their reshaping of the businesses that they buy by arguing that only in that way can the businesses find their Second Curve.
Looking back over my career I had, without realizing it, done the right thing at the right time.
Each time I had left my job before it peaked.
My new curve then dipped down, financially, for some years while I invested in new learning until the new curve took off, only for it, in time, to approach its peak.
A further curve, I suspect, is yet to come.
Many will have had a similar experience in their own lives, moving from one job to another, unwittingly riding the sigmoid curves, but Second-Curve thinking goes far beyond personal careers.
Steve Jobs of Apple was, by all accounts, a difficult man to work with, but he was the master of the Second Curve.
By the time that the Macintosh computer was a proven success Jobs and his creative team were already planning to enter the music business with the iPod.
When that product began to dominate the market Jobs had already begun to design the iPhone, a new product for a very different business, that was followed, once successful, by the iPad.
Each new curve was conceived before the last one peaked.
Each new curve grew out of the last but sold into a very different market — on the face of it, a dangerous risk but to Jobs a logical next curve.
Today the Apple products seem to be a seamless interconnected family, but that was neither inevitable nor predictable.
Will Second-Curve thinking continue at Apple?
Time will tell, because Second-Curve thinking does not come easily.
It requires imagination, intuition and instinct more than rational analysis.
Then, to act on it demands the courage to step into the unknown when all the signals, and all those around you, tell you that you don’t need to.
In another realm and another game, Alex Ferguson, the legendary manager of Manchester United Football Club, was careful to bring on new talent before the current top players passed their peak, even though that meant occasionally losing stars who still had some playing time in them.
It is, unfortunately, always going to be difficult to keep the creators of the first curve engaged while building the future beneath them.
The obvious answer is to help them to create the beginnings of a Second Curve for themselves, but not until your own Second Curve has been established.
Timing is all.
A large part of Alex Ferguson’s prolonged success was due to getting the Second-Curve timing right.
He could not have raised the club to the top of the football world and kept it there for 27 years if he had not ridden the sigmoid curves, although, of course, he was not aware of the concept.
Just as Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain found that he had been speaking prose for 40 years without knowing it, so many successful people have reinvented themselves or their organizations without the help of the idea.
Sadly, in retrospect, Alex Ferguson failed at the end.
He resigned when the club was already at its peak, leaving his successor to build a new curve when the first one had already started to decline.
If Ferguson had gone two years earlier the clubs momentum might have provided the time needed to build the credibility of the new leader and the chance to start the new curve.
Contrast these and my own examples with the story of a man I met at a local party.
He was standing on his own, in the corner, while the party went on around him.
Elderly, obviously, but also a bit lost, so I went over to talk to him.
‘Have you lived here long?’
‘Yes, he replied, and added, I’m 93, you know,’ although I had not asked.
‘Is that so?’
‘Then you must have had a fascinating life — tell me about it.’
‘Well, when the war broke out I was 19.
I tried to join up but they said that my lungs weren’t up to it and that I must do industrial work instead.
They offered me the choice of two factories, one north of the Thames, one south.
Since I lived north I chose that one.
That was where I stayed for the next 40 years, moving up a couple of levels during that time.
Then I retired and came to live here.’
‘And then … ?
I prompted him.
‘That’s it,’ he said.
Then, after a long pause, he added,
‘Sometimes I think that I should have done something more with my life.’
A moderately successful life followed by a long slow decline into eventual oblivion.
Nothing wrong with that, I mused, except for what might have been.
Why was it such a familiar story?
Why did it remind me irresistibly of so many people whom I knew, with long years spent compiling a CV that now seemed irrelevant, of so many businesses and other institutions, indeed of much of the country where I was living, many parts of which, it seemed to me, had failed to find the best road to a different future and had settled instead for making the best of what was there, walking backwards into the future, clinging as long as possible to what used to be, ending up with a long drink at Davy’s Bar while reminiscing about the past.
It is perhaps no wonder that Second-Curve thinking and action is rarer than it should be, in our own lives or in the lives of institutions.
Sometimes a trigger is required.
Businesses can sense from the shrinking of profit margins or market shares that new thinking is needed.
Athletes know that age imposes its own limits, often at an unfairly early stage, and that a new career has to be planned while success still keeps your name in the news.
The manager of Wigan rugby league club once told me that his biggest problem was to convince a strapping 25-year-old athlete at the height of his powers that he needed to start re-educating himself for another way of life in three or four years’ time.
Retirement, redundancy or divorce can be the trigger for some individuals, although leaving it until it happens can be leaving it too late.
Sometimes it is the boredom that can come from success.
Been there, done that.
Andre Previn, the classical musician, had great success in Hollywood as a young man, composing film scores, but gave it all up to come to Britain and concentrate on performing and conducting.
He explained that he woke up one morning with no pain in his stomach at the thought of what he had to do that day.
At that point, he knew it was time to leave.
The threat of a takeover can be the trigger for a business.
A period in opposition is the equivalent of a sabbatical for politicians and should be an invitation to a bout of Second-Curve thinking.
Anything that takes us out of our comfort zones for a while can act as a reminder that the past we are used to may not be our best future.
Sabbaticals for senior executives, or temporary secondments to a different world, ought to be more common than they are.
As Dr Johnson once said, you can see your own country much more clearly when you stand outside it.
Institutions, in particular, are notoriously unwilling to die, seeing it as their duty to soldier on against the odds.
Jim Collins, the American management scholar and writer, has usefully listed the five stages of institutional decline down that slippery slope of the first curve, what Christensen called the technological mudslide.
First there is the hubris born of success, at the top of the curve, then the undisciplined pursuit of more of the same, followed by a denial of any risk.
Thereafter there is only a futile grasping for salvation and an eventual capitulation to irrelevance or death.
It is sadly fascinating to watch too many institutions following Jim Collins’ slow progression, usually by trying to do more of the same only cheaper, leaving them even more bereft of resources for anything new.
In this book I will suggest that many of our traditional ways of doing things need some Second-Curve thinking — capitalism itself, the economy and how we measure it, education, work and how it is organized, marriages and families, democracy and government.
It is not my purpose, nor is in my competence, to prescribe in detail what the next curve should be in any of these areas.
That can only be done by those who are currently riding the first Curve or who might start the second.
My purpose is only to challenge and question and, occasionally, to suggest or provoke.
I want the world that my grandchildren will live in to be a different and a better place.
If my suggestions seem outrageous, ill-considered or dangerous then so much the better.
If the ideas in this book provoke arguments among colleagues and friends and if the book acts as a trigger to some to start thinking about the Second Curve then I will be well satisfied.
‘How do I know what I think until I hear what I say?’ the Irishman said.
For starters, consider the following: The financial crisis of 2007-10 did more than disrupt economies around the world: it forced many to rethink their priorities in life, how they lived and why they lived.
Organizations, particularly those in business, should start to re-examine their assumptions, questioning whether in an uncertain world it still makes sense to make the size of their enterprise so important.
Can some businesses become too big to fail because of the damage to others that might result?
Might it be wiser to aim to grow better without growing bigger?
If economies of scale are crucial, is it necessary to own everything?
Could the economies be achieved by non-competitive alliances instead?
If so, how will these be managed and monitored?
Has money become too powerful?
If Facebook can rustle up $19 billion from its own resources to buy up a possible competitor, if Google can use its wealth to corner all the artificial intelligence expertise around, are we seeing the need for a modern trust-busting Teddy Roosevelt?
Is money in the new digital world a true reflection of value?
Should money be allowed to influence voters in what are supposed to be democracies, but if not, how can political campaigns be financed?
New problems for a new age where old solutions no longer work.
Modern youth may well sit looser to institutions, loath to sell their talents and their time in advance to soulless corporations.
How then will the institutions engage with such people, given that they will still need their talents?
How should society prepare these young people for self-sufficiency in such a world?
Can schools, as institutions themselves, prepare people to live outside institutions?
Will families remain the bedrock of society or will they, too, increasingly fragment into looser associations?
Can emails and Skype, Facebook and Twitter compensate for physical connection?
Can you indeed ever trust someone that you have never met, may never meet?
The questions rumble on.
What will hold a society together?
Will we dissolve into ghettos of religion and race or will we find something better than war or economic success to build a united country?
Bigger than all these issues is that old philosophical conundrum — what are we striving for anyway, as individuals and as a society?
Is selfishness necessary for economic growth, or could we find a better measure of success?
Is altruism and a concern for others, what Adam Smith called sympathy, part of our nature or does it have to be learnt or acquired?
New thinking is not the prerogative of those in authority.
They are often too wedded to their accustomed ways, to that first curve, to conceive that another way might be possible.
The thinking could and should start with ourselves.
I am sure that each one of us can make a difference — to our own lives, to the lives of those around us, especially our families, to the institutions to which we may belong, to the communities in which we live and even to the countries of which we are citizens.
One of our faults is that we are too modest, too willing to believe that those in power know best.
I used to think that — until I taught some of them, then I knew that most of them were as ordinary as us.
If we want to see a better society it has to start with us and in our own lives.
The Second Curve is our chance to make up for any shortcomings on the first curve, to redeem ourselves and to show that we have learnt from the past in order to create a better future.
Navigating a world moving toward unimagined futureS
“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic”. — Peter Drucker
The shift from manual workers who do as they are being told — either by the task or by the boss — to knowledge workers who have to manage themselves ↓ profoundly challenges social structure …
“Managing Oneself (PDF) is a REVOLUTION in human affairs.” … “It also requires an almost 180-degree change in the knowledge workers’ thoughts and actions from what most of us—even of the younger generation—still take for granted as the way to think and the way to act.” …
These pages are attention directing tools for navigating a world moving relentlessly toward unimagined futures.
What’s the next effective action on the road ahead
It’s up to you to figure out what to harvest and calendarize
It may be a step forward to actively reject something (rather than just passively ignoring) and then working out a plan for coping with what you’ve rejected.
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