Second curves

In the time of that life, and in his work, he has been many people, and if sometimes he contradicted himself well then, like Whitman he contains multitudes.
—James Sallis, Accounts Due

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.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

This pattern of connectedness is rife in humanity, technology and science. If you have two similar tuning forks, whack one and the other will sing, despite the fact they’re not touching. It’s the same in humans. Everything has a natural frequency of vibration. We resonate at certain frequencies, seeking and finding meaning in different experiences, clans and value-sets.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines

Practised obliquity routinely wins against disciplined directness.
— John Kay, Obliquity

As an amateur international rugby player, Martin Bayfield earned his living as a police officer. Having won 31 caps representing England, and a further three for the British Lions, he continued at club level into the professional era that emerged in the wake of the 1995 World Cup. Injury brought a premature end to his playing career, and Bayfield made one of numerous shifts that have been a feature of his adult life. Now a former policeman and rugby player, Bayfield moved into both journalism and acting. Opportunities emerged which have served to cement his presence as a media stalwart. Bayfield has worked variously for Channel 5, ITV, the BBC and BT Sport over a number of years now, covering rugby union and the NFL on the sporting front, but prime time programmes like Crime Watch too. He has also featured on the big screen, occasionally as an actor, but perhaps more famously as a body and stunt double. In the Harry Potter film series, it is Bayfield’s 6 foot 10 inch frame that stands in for Robbie Coltrane’s half-giant Hagrid, usually hidden inside an animatronic disguise.

Bayfield’s story is one example among many of people who have enjoyed a diversified, mashed-up, portfolio career. Others have enjoyed a narrower range but over a more extended period of time.

Debbie Harry, for example, enjoyed success as the lead singer of the band Blondie, as well as occasional acting roles in front of the movie cameras. As with Joe Strummer, another singer-actor to emerge from the fusion of music, art and protest that characterised punk in the 1970s, Harry’s personal diversity was also representative of the group with which she was identified. Indeed, both Blondie and The Clash proved to be great surfers of the zeitgeist, constantly moving between musical genres, anticipating changes in public taste. To listen to their music is to listen to rock, reggae, disco, funk and rap. Punk is too narrow a label, too great a constraint. Two of the key members of Blondie have similarly changed streams at will. Harry moving from the band to acting and a solo singing career then back to the reformed group, even performing at Glastonbury in 2014, showing no signs of letting up as she approaches her seventieth year. Chris Stein, co-founder of Blondie, has also demonstrated his versatility and adeptness as a photographer, enjoying a solo exhibition in 2015 and an associated book publication.

It is relatively easy to spot the polymathic generalism of the individual, especially when they have gained prominence in one discipline – like Bayfield, Harry, Strummer and Stein – and then demonstrated elevated proficiency in another. What is observed less often, though, is this tendency among collectives too.

In his new book, The Second Curve, business writer Charles Handy develops a metaphor based on the sigmoid curve; a form of elongated s turned on its side. In Handy’s view, this ‘is the line of all things human, of our own lives, of organisations and businesses, of governments, empires and alliances, of democracy itself and its many and varied institutions.’ Handy describes how the curve represents a familiar life cycle that is repeated over and again: an initial investment of effort and resource, followed by eventual progress, culminating in a peak, extended decline and end. The trick is to anticipate the peak and change before you reach it, starting a second curve. The career of a Bayfield, for example, suggests that each new curve leads constantly in new directions; that of a Harry that a new curve can actually cycle back to an old one, the same but different.

We live in an era when the average company life span is getting shorter and shorter. Organisations either need to learn to shift to a second curve on a frequent basis or accept inevitable decline and demise. Handy highlights Apple as one company that has jumped from one curve to another: from Mac to music to iPhone to tablet to wearable. As Steve Jobs wandered with the Apple brand, Richard Branson also did so with the Virgin name, embarking on adventures in multiple industries. Google are trying it too. Some of the big financial, petrochemical and pharmaceutical companies have dabbled for years. The danger, though, is that organisations can become too bloated, trying to swim in too many streams simultaneously, strangling themselves with bureaucracy. It is possible to over-diversify, as witness Tesco or Walmart, for example.

It seems, however, that the second-curve mindset can open the way for rethinking organisational design. Perhaps smaller corporations – or at least reduced cores – can interact with a host of satellite teams comprised of employees, customers, suppliers, freelancers and other business partners. These can be small-scale and diversified, free to self-manage, to detect and act upon second-curve opportunities. Lessons can be learned from those experimenting with Dunbar numbers and capping the size of plants or operational units. The examples of Semco, W. L. Gore and the military are cited too often. We need new examples.

Maybe now is the ideal opportunity for the autonomous crew to emerge as the default work unit. As Mark Gould, building on ideas developed by Dave Snowden, describes it, a crew ‘is a temporary group of people brought together for a particular job or task and then disbanded’. Not unlike the breakaway in #pelotonformations. The arc of the breakaway follows that of the curve. The opportunist, therefore, needs to look for the right moment to attack and move away from their breakaway partners, before the catch is made by the peloton, before the curve peaks and declines.

The modern, responsive organisation has to be comprised of small crews loosely joined. Crews whose membership is fluid, as are the leadership roles within them. Crews whose lifetime may not exceed one project curve. Crews comprised of a collective of individuals who are polymathic in outlook and skill set, willing and able to shift in multiple directions, horizon scanning and jumping when peaks are in sight.

We require both individuals and collectives following oblique paths, discovering second curves.

Sometimes the best way to have ideas is to be thinking of something else.
— David Hieatt, Do Purpose

A fixed mindset is a critical stumbling block at the edge. It stops us from being open to trying new things and experimenting.
— Steven D’Souza & Diana Renner, Not Knowing

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.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

My strong conviction is that the more of us that try both A and C roles, and the more effortlessly we can switch between them, even wearing both hats at different times on the same day, the more successful we will be as leaders and the more successful will be our collective efforts.
— Richard Hytner, Consiglieri

2 thoughts on “Second curves

  1. Pingback: Second curves | Socially Build

  2. Pingback: Petervan’s Delicacies: Week 23 Mar 2015 | Petervan

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