This review was written by Eugene Kernes
Social paradoxes make life confusing because they are hard to control and make people feel impotent. What makes them confusing is that a paradox provides different outcomes for the same action, so that what worked before is not guaranteed to work again. This book tries to provide a guideline for how to think and respond to the paradoxes. The best advice is also really difficult to take which is to try out different things during a succeeding stage. Creating options before there is a need to change allows people and businesses from taking a risk of working with the same actions when they no longer work anymore. Handy provides a general request to take people as human beings rather than tools in the economy.
The sigmoid curve is a big proponent of this book. An S-shaped curve that can explain a multitude of historical and life events. During the rise on the curve, business and people need to look out for opportunities to change. This is hard to do because on the rise, what seems to be the best thing to do is to do what is working. Those who do not seek out opportunities to change, usually lose their success and have a hard time changing when they need to change to survive. Challenging assumptions which have worked before facilitates producing alternatives which can be used to cope with contradiction when they are arise. The initial actions cannot be abandoned early as it is the success of those actions which will provide the needed resources for the search in potential alternatives.
Another major lesson that Handy has to offer is about leadership, such as knowing when to compromise. Sticking to principles may result in reducing the efficacy of the very same principles. Knowing what to measure, or even better, knowing that what is measured is not the sole priority. A federalist organizational structure is promoted in this book as it enables local decisions to impact the whole institution. Trust in each member is needed as power resides with those who take actions.
There are a few problems with the book which are: 1) Paradox is not necessarily what the many examples are. Some are genuine contradictions which contain interesting philosophical conundrums, but generally they are all based on context and social structure rather than being dissonant. The examples are nonetheless extremely important distribution problems. 2) The book is trying to provide general life lessons but most of the examples are business examples. Having business behave in favor of society and their consumers rather than short term profit objectives is a marvelous goal, but the book needs to expand its concepts. There are non-business examples, but they are a minority. 3) The examples are themselves an example of survivorship bias. Taking different options is generally costly, which requires an already succeeding business. Only business that have money can take a risk, while a risk to those who are struggling may not be prudent. 4) Although the author claimed to have been vindictive in certainties and in this book was trying not to be, he did not go far enough. Different culture, which ironically he references and is supportive of, have different ways of resolving paradoxes. Handy’s guide to managing paradox may work in some cultures, but not others.