The Age of Unreason
What makes far too many business books dull reading is that they fall into 2 categories. The first category is cookbooks–they tell you what to do to reengineer your company or how a new tool should be used. The other is hagiography in which St. George in pinstripes, having slayed his company’s competitive dragons, tells you the story (or has his story told, and they’re mostly hims) so you’ll know what to do in the same circumstances.
Charles Handy is England’s Peter Drucker and, by comparison to most business writers, Handy provokes deep thinking. Or at least he does for me. Drucker has always struck me as a social scientist immersed in business. Handy, likewise, is a philosopher who just happens to think deeply about how we order commercial organizations and activities.
What we struggle with in business, I think, is how do we get more done in a way that’s good for our customers and humane to our staff. Handy won’t tell you how to do that but he may prompt you to think differently about the subject. Handy is fond of visual metaphors–upside down umbrellas and shamrocks for instance–but they’re all in the service of making you consider what you know in a new light.
The last third of the book goes beyond the workplace and here he’s particularly insightful. He published this volume in 1989 (there was a Handy craze in 1992 or so) and in teasing out the implications of emerging changes in business he warns against concentrating the cash awards in an ever smaller core. We have, he says, the ability to choose between making work better for all or taking care of the few. Look around and see whether we’ve made the brave choices over the last two decades that would enable us to say we made the better choice.
The short verdict: this book is worth more of your time than anything published recently.