Discontinuous Thinking


Discontinuous thinking sounds very impressive. Some might call it thinking outside the box, or lateral thinking, or creativity, or whatever. The point is still that conventional thinking and incremental decision making will not address the changes that confront 21st Century libraries.

Charles Handy based the title of his book THE Age OF UNREASON on George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man. His argument was that the reasonable man adapts himself to the world, while the unreasonable [person] persists in trying to adapt the world to himself; therefore for any change of consequence we must look to the unreasonable man, or, I must add, to the unreasonable woman.” [Emphasis added.]

While in Shaw’s day, perhaps, most men were reasonable, we are now entering an Age of Unreason, when the future, in so many areas, is there to be shaped, by us and for us – a time when the only prediction that will hold true is that no predictions will hold true; a time, therefore, for bold imaginings in private life as well as public, for thinking the unlikely and doing the unreasonable.

Handy refers to discontinuous thinking as upside-down thinking.

Discontinuous change requires discontinuous thinking. If the new way of doing things is going to be different from the old, not just an improvement on it, then we shall need to look at everything in a new way. … The creative upside-down thinking of such people [Copernicus, Galileo, Freud, Marx, Einstein, etc.] is the premise on which this book is built. New ways of thinking about familiar things can release new energies and make all manner of things possible. Upside-down thinking does not have to aspire to the greatness of Einstein or to the all-embracing doctrines of Marx. It has its more familiar variants. The person who decides to treat every chore as an opportunity for learning discovers that cooking can be a creative art, chopping wood [can be] a craft, childcare an educational experience, and shopping a sociological expedition. … Upside-down thinking changes nothing save the way we think, but that can make all the difference. [Emphasis added.]

Handy’s conclusion to his argument for the need for discontinuous thinking to address discontinuous change speaks, IMHO, to many in our profession today.

It is the time for new imaginings, of windows opening even if doors close. We need not stumble backward into the future, casting longing glances at what used to be; we can turn around and face a changed reality. It is, after all, a safer posture if you want to keep moving.

Some people, however, do not want to keep moving. Change for them means sacrificing the familiar, even if it is unpleasant, for the unknown, even when it might be better. … Sadly for them a time of discontinuous change means that standing still is not an option, for the ground is shifting underneath them. For them, more than the movers and the shakers, it is essential that they understand what is happening, that they begin to appreciate that to move and to change is essential, and that through change we learn and grow, although not always without pain. [Emphasis added.]

Handy offers his recommendation to all professionals who profess to embrace true learning.

It is the argument of this book that discontinuous change is all around us. We would be foolish to block our eyes to its signs as those Peruvian Indians did to their invaders’ sails. We need not leave it too late, like the frog in boiling water, nor wait for a revolution. There are opportunities as well as problems in discontinuous change. If we change our attitudes, our habits, and the ways of some of our institutions, it can be an age of new discovery, new enlightenment, and new freedoms – an age of true learning.

Handy’s solution is that “discontinuous change requires discontinuous upside-down thinking to deal with it”. Librarians are some of the most innovative and creative thinkers and doers I have ever known. I sincerely hope they can focus that ability on creating 21st Century libraries.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Discontinuous Thinking

  1. I love your site! I believe that the core in doughnut principle gives us the bit of security and certainty which we all need. A valuable resource about Charles Handy mindsets could be found here:
    Charles Handy Mindsets

    • Thank you. I appreciate readers’ input.
      While Handy’s ideas about discontinuous thinking back in the 1990s was way ahead of the times, it is extremely relevant today, especially in librarianship when we’re actually behind where we should be in establishing our value and relevance. However, from what little I read about Handy’s doughnut theory, it almost semms counter to discontinuous thinking. I think we could benefit from the question everything approach.

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