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strategy and business
 / Spring 2013 / Issue 70(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Dueling Myths of Business

S+B: When did you first become aware of how the conflict among these myths can result in misunderstandings (and worse)?
In the early 1990s, I was invited to work on the Royal Dutch Shell global scenarios. One of our scenarios was focused on environmental sustainability as a driver for world decisions. At the time, Shell was applying for the right to let an old oil platform sink into the North Sea. After the British government approved the plan in 1995, Greenpeace organized such broad and dramatic protests at the site that Shell ultimately changed its plans.

I was interested in the way people talked past one another during this episode. Shell was clearly operating on the scientific myth. The Shell people did their homework, trying to find a cost-effective way to get rid of the facility with the least environmental damage, maximizing advantage for everyone. But the media is driven by the heroic myth, because that myth produces the best stories. To them, Greenpeace was David versus Shell’s Goliath. So when Shell trotted out its middle-aged engineers to talk about the science, the TV directors cut from them to the young people who were occupying the oil platform and chanting against Shell, which was portrayed as a typical greedy corporation. In other words, Shell was perceived as following the economic myth—pursuing growth at all costs. Greenpeace, meanwhile, was motivated by a more religious myth: Don’t pollute the ocean, period.

I suggested to some of Shell’s managers that they should helicopter a small, diverse group of young employees to the platform with food and drinks for the protestors and the message, “We’re members of Greenpeace, too. Many Shell staffers are. Let’s talk about this.” Then the headline would be, “Maybe Goliath wants to join David, and not fight him,” which indeed was the case. Greenpeace later apologized and said they had gotten it wrong, but the apology appeared in the back of the newspaper and few people noticed.

Ever since, I’ve been determined to answer the question: What are the myths we live with, the ones that are so ever-present we don’t even realize they’re shaping our culture?

S+B: How did your tenure with government affect your understanding of the myths?
I’m generally a left-leaning person politically, but if you heard me talk about the absurdities I experienced as a federal employee, you would think I belonged to the Tea Party. In an advanced democracy or a complex economy, government follows the ecological myth, prioritizing the health of the overall system, often at the expense of common sense. Any individual government worker is constantly put in impossible situations.

For example, when I arrived at the [Lyndon Baines Johnson] library, we had just received a new shipment of Dell computers. Our people desperately needed them. But the government had not yet approved Windows NT, so I was supposed to send the computers to Washington, at great expense, to have them wiped clean and the older Windows 97 installed. Then, two months later, when Windows NT was expected to be approved, I would have to send the same computers back to Washington to have NT reinstalled.

One of my first decisions on the job was to stall. We waited almost a year until NT was approved and we could open the boxes. If any computers snuck out early, I’m not telling. It was a well-meaning endeavor; a security breach might have cost millions of dollars. But the total effect was absurdity and huge expense.

S+B: What myth led to the financial crisis?
First of all, it was predictable—and people predicted it. There were warnings as soon as the Glass–Steagall Act was repealed. But the economic myth, that growth could go on forever and that we create our own success, was in full swing. When people act as if that’s true, it leads to bubbles.

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