The Age of Paradox by Charles Handy

The Age of Paradox by Charles Handy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1994. xiiii, 305 pp.

Charles Handy is a former oil company executive, a philosopher, a broadcaster, and an author of many books and articles. He lives in London.

The thesis of the book is that paradoxes are inevitable. Often we try to resolve these paradoxes, but Handy argues this is futile. Rather, we need to name them and then learn to navigate them as best we can. In this book Handy offers some tools to help us with this navigation.

Early in the book, Handy names the “paradoxes of our times.” Among them he identifies:

  • The paradox of intelligence. Intelligence is the real asset for many businesses in the 21st century, yet the company cannot own it, but must recognize it resides within the people in the organization who are free to leave when they choose.
  • The paradox of work. Many of us have a love/hate relationship with our work. From it we gain joy and identity, but also pain and difficulty.
  • The paradox of justice. It may mean giving someone what they deserve, or giving that person what they need. People can be on opposite sides of an argument, both representing their position in the name of justice.

Two key tools he develops are the sigmoid curve and the inside-out doughnut. The curve recognizes that every good idea, good practice, good business has a success curve. At some point, no matter how well you are doing, you must make the decision to start doing something else; if you don’t you will ride the same curve down that you rode up. The challenge is knowing when to switch, and he offers some great insight.

The inside-out doughnut is created by replacing the space of the donut hole with dough, and the substance of the donut with air: a ring with donut hole and space around it inside the ring. The doughnut hole represent, for example, the duties that may be prescribed in your job. The outer ring represents the boundary of opportunity each of us has to initiate things that are not mandated by our duties but which create both great value and satisfaction. The challenge, a kind of paradox, is to accomplish our duties, initiate some good things beyond our duties, but to know the boundaries of how far to go. When, in the name of efficiency, our jobs are so completely prescribed that there is no opportunity to innovate, we lose and the employee loses. We can be so efficient that we can no longer create.

From the list of paradoxes, the sigmoid curve, and the inside-out donut, he creatively looks at challenges in our business world and beyond.

Handy has a wonderful section on the purpose of business and the morality of compromise. The book is rich, deep, thoughtful, and enjoyable. At the end, before I started re-reading the book, I felt like I had been having a conversation with a very wise person.

The book has been around for sometime, published for the first time in 1994, and somehow I missed it earlier. In a few places it shows its age. He is a bit more optimistic, for example, about outsourcing than he would likely be today. But the time gap is minimal.

I highly recommend this book. And if you read it earlier, I would encourage you to re-read it. This is a gem.

Reviewed by Al Erisman