The Second Curve. Time to Unlearn, time to relearn

Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United football club, was always careful to bring on new talent before the top players passed their peak, even though that meant occasionally loosing stars who still had some playing time in them. Sir Alex followed this strategy for his 27 years with ManU, and I dare to say with a lot of success.

By the time that the Macintosh computer was a proven success, Steve Jobs of Apple and his team was 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.

Both gentlemen were master of perfect S-Curve timing. And both were masters of doing what most other managers don’t understand or dare to do. They might not have been familiar with Charles Handy’s The Second Curve concept, but nevertheless this was indeed what they implemented. So let’s take a closer look at the S-Curve thinking.

Charles Handy, born 1932, is an Irish author and philosopher  – as well as a member of Thinkers 50, a list of the most influential management thinkers. Last year he wrote a book called ‘The Second Curve. Thoughts on Reinventing Society’.  A book which profoundly has influenced my own thoughts about navigating into the future.

The core theme in ‘The Second Curve’ is that in order 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. All societies, political ideas/concepts, products and services come with an end. All do they follow a S-curve with an introduction, growth, maturity and eventually a decline phase. Like Life itself, everything comes with an expire date.

So in order to move forward we constantly have to innovate and bring new S-curves to the market which can replace old age S-curves.

Now, you might object and say that this is nothing new. But hang on for a moment and hear me out. Because where it really becomes interesting is when Charles Handy continues: ‘The nasty and often fatal snag is that the Second Curve has to start before the first curve peaks’ (my underlining).

So contrary to common human behaviour and belief Charles Handy advocates that we should never wait until we see the decline of an existing S-cruve before we act. We should actually start thinking about replacing an existing S-curve as this curve is peaking, not when if starts its downturn. When times are good, start thinking about changing – not just adjustments, but radically change.

Sir Alex and Steve Jobs both started thinking about finding new S-curves before existing S-Curves expired. They both unlearned traditional thinking about innovation. Don’t wait to innovate until you see your existing concept or business loosing its steam. Innovate when you feel most comfortable. Constantly get out of your comfort zone and challenge complacency.

However, what Charles Handy suggests is still not easy for most of us:

  1. How do we know when that first S-curve is about to peak? When products sales are high or a political party sees strong public support it is a fundamental human trait to hold on and hope for even better times. Clearly, we are doing something right. When all indicators are positive we seek confirmation rather than disruption.
  2. Second Curve thinking does not come easily. It requires imagination, intuition and instinct more than rational analysis. We need to challenge orthodoxy, dream a little and dare the impossible if we are going to have any chance of making the future work. This fits poorly with the business world’s traditional focus on rational and financial factors. In a data-driven world Charles Handy asks us to think unreasonable.

But despite all the challenges and obstacles it is time to Relearn. In a society and a world that is changing at a radically increasing speed, forget conventional thinking and start implementing new S-Curves. Not tomorrow, but now. Chances are that if you don’t others will likely create new value propositions which will undermine your business. And they will do whilst you think you are standing on solid ground.

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