Book Review: The Empty Raincoat

We were not destined to be empty raincoats, nameless numbers on a payroll, role occupants, the raw material of economics or sociology, statistics in some government report

Although The Empty Raincoat was written 16 years ago, the predictions are so precise that it could have been published last week.

With this masterpiece Charles Handy brings an amazing clarity to the paradoxes that we are facing today. Sure, 16 years ago, the digital economy was not even invented as a term, but the changes in our society, our economy, work and our careers were already clear to Handy. Handy is a visionary.

The book starts by describing 9 paradoxes. Each of them is worth to be considered in the light of the 2010 society:

1. The paradox of intelligence: it’s a new form of property, which does not behave like other forms of property. It has a low cost of entry and that will radically change our society. Now – 16 years after its publication – we see that the means of production for intellectual work are available to anyone, that transaction costs and shelf-space costs are close to 0, and that the “Wisdom of crowds” enables completely different dynamics;

2. The paradox of work. Handy defines work as “Society’s chosen way of distributing income” as opposed to a measure of efficiency. This is where the paradox lies: organizations are in charge of the way employment is created or reduced; and they will not pay for slack or buffer. As a result workers are conditioned as ‘employees’ to perform repetitive and empty tasks. When they are made redundant, they are not capable of being creative and resilient entrepreneurs. Second, as organizations are reengineered to be lean to the bone, they have no capacity surplus that allows for creativity or change. This is what we see today: anorectic and stressed-out organizations with a tunnel vision who completely miss the point about our changing society: doing the same things over and over, and expecting different results;

3. The paradox of productivity: how do we define value? 16 years ago Handy found out that by pricing our work, we can ultimately destroy it. New insights today (see Dan Pink’s Drive) underscore the perversity of rewarding.  This is a very fine insight that is currently known as driving the gift economy.

4. The paradox of time. Handy refers to time as a ‘strange commodity’. The application of modern technology means less time is needed to make and do things. People should have more spare time. But time has become a competitive weapon and getting things done quickly is imperative. As a result, many of those who work have less time than ever before.

5. The paradox of riches. Economic growth depends upon more people wanting more things. But increasingly, the things people want most (clean air, safe environment) are collective and cannot be bought by individuals at any price. And because there is no customer, organizations cannot produce them.

6. The paradox of organization: Today, organizations need to be local and global at the same time; to be small in some ways but big in others; and to be centralized some of the time and decentralized the rest. Managers are expected to be more entrepreneurial and more team-oriented at the same time. No one knows what is needed to run organizations now.

7. The paradox of age. A lifelong career no longer exists. There is a gap between adolescence and adulthood and we cannot seem to fill it. 16 years later we call this the ‘digital divide’. The point is that most organizations are led by people whose experiences do not equip them to lead in today’s environment.

8. The paradox of the individual: who do you represent? Handy sensed a tension between individual rights and collective will. Today we see that it has never been more explosive: consumers and employees are calling out to brands and employers that they are individuals, not numbers.

9. The paradox of justice: People want the organizations they work for to treat them fairly. But being treated fairly means different things to different people.

Handy continues by proposing three paths to guide us through these paradoxes. His advice comes down to three different ways of looking at the world.

1. Start a second curve. Handy adopts the idea of a sigmoid-curve to demonstrate what the lifecycle of our career looks like. He argues that we are not restricted to one single lifecycle. We can live more than one cycle in a single lifetime if we are smart enough to start the second curve before the first curve has reached its point of saturation.

2. The doughnut principle. Handy compares us to a doughnut and says the core is what’s essential. It’s the agreed given of a job, or a project, or a person. And the outside of the core is the potential. The potential is variable and you can develop as much or as little of it as you want. But it needs to have a boundary, or a limit in order to be balanced. Without a boundary it is easy to be oppressed by guilt, for enough is never enough. The point is that we are responsible for balancing our own doughnut: with a core (a duty) that matches our destiny, and an outside that caters for our potential.

3. Make Chinese Contracts. Handy learned from the Chinese that a contract is needed only when trust is absent. Trust and optimizing the relationship is becoming more important than maximizing the individual result at the expense of others. Adam Smith’s invisible hand only works when it is preceded by an invisible handshake.

Furthermore, this book is full of thought provoking ideas. To name but a few:

- Subsidiarity versus empowerment: the first assumes that the power is already decentralized; while the second is a conditional giving away of power and taking it back when it does not suit you anymore;
- Membership and involvement is more important than ownership (now 16 years later – this is more true than ever);
- “One can only add meaning and value to his life by living those lives“;
- Balance four types of work: paid work, gift work, home work, study work;
- Nine types of intelligence: Factual, Analytical, Linguistic, Spatial, Musical, Practical, Physical, Intuitive, Interpersonal. The point is that we need a more complete view on intelligence in order to pick our strengths and build our doughnut;
- The three C’s of learning (the essence). They are conceptualizing, coordinating, and consolidating;
- Four phases in everyone’s life (each lasting approximately 25 years): The age of preparation, the age of main endeavor (and the danger of getting trapped in someone else’s time cage), the age of a second life and the age of dependency. Comparable to 4 phases: Learn, contribute, change, depart.

In short: if you are fan of recent books like Chris Anderson’s Long Tail or Free; Dan Pink’s Drive; Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis and Seth Godin’s Linchpin; then this book is definitely a gem for you. Shame on Amazon that it is not available on Kindle.