Question the Prevailing Story (in Business)!
Just finished up a great 3-part series of podcasts on Susan Sontag, a mid-20th-century critic and philosopher. (As always, I want to stress the value I receive from the Philosophize This podcasts by Stephen West.) Listening to these, it is apparent (as Susan readily admits) that Ms. Sontag is very influenced by the Ethics of Attention developed by Simone Weil.
The podcasts all discussed the various ways that Sontag has picked apart the way that we overly rely on various forms of stories or narratives. Her work, IMO, are particular expressions of the Ethics of Attention, and how we need to be both mindful and careful of the influence of the current cultural narratives, in how these affect our everyday judgement.
“The only intereting ideas are heresies.” — Susan Sontag
There is particular application of the lessons from Sontag in the way we manage and lead our businesses. It is too easy to just follow along with the fashionable cultural biases and narratives. The same old story can lead us to make mistakes. We rely on what we have been told too much, rather than truly paying attention to the facts in front of us. True leadership and good business requires us to constantly challenge, both ourselves (and our biases) and those providing information to our decision process.
Take for example a few recent examples from macroeconomics: It was just about a year ago that all (or most) of the leading experts (including the Fed) talked over and over about how inflation at the time was “transitory”. The inflation we were experiencing was due to short-term influences, like the COVID-caused supply chain issues, etc., and would pass shortly. This was the reason that the Fed continued to hold down interest rates, likely for too long.
More recently, there have been (and continue to be) many pundits talking about inevitable recession on the horizon. While I certainly will not attempt to make predictions one way or the other, I will point to one particularly suspicious presentation of this inevitability that I recently saw. A well known pundit from Charles Schwab gave a 30-minute, data-filled slide slow, using supposed historical patterns, to confidently predict a recession — which by the way, he was sure that it would have started a month or so ago. It was a very interesting, and frankly, convincing case. In retrospect, I should have questioned the underlying assumption more. Historical patterns, as they may be, are only useful to predict the future, if the same conditions continue into the future, upon which the patterns are based. The expert’s entire analysis failed to account for a very large disruptor in the “normal” historical data — the COVID pandemic.
I am not trying to disrespect expert analysis, and I will concede that we often have nothing to go on but historical data. But, the fact that very smart people (the Fed chair and the dude from Schwab) got it wrong, just cements the argument from Ms Sontag. In order to make the best decisions, in business and in life, we need to always be skeptical of the currently popular narratives. We should pay attention not only to the facts and expert opinions, but also to the underlying assumptions — and question the experts!