Bob Keiller: Seeing the whole story

I spend a lot of time talking about storytelling in business.

Good stories often depend on someone or some group overcoming a challenge or a struggle – eventually either succeeding or failing. Without the challenge, the struggle or the conflict, stories lack drama, making them less interesting and less memorable.

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News media love great stories – they look for drama (ideally involving some misbehaving celebrities) that can lead to shocking headlines to attract readers or viewers.

In the world of business or politics, the same applies – people co-operating towards a reasonable outcome doesn’t make a good story. People fighting and criticising each other is much more interesting, so that’s what we’re fed and what we consume.

But this distorts our views.

The balancing act of taking in enough tax revenues, so we can spend enough on public services to satisfy society’s needs, without taking so much that it damages the economy and reduces the available revenues, is never easy.

Consider these two requests:

  • “Please lower corporate and income tax rates so I can create more new jobs here, attract inward investment and help grow the economy.”
  • “Please provide more money for health, social services, policing and education – people need it. You can do this by increasing corporate and income taxes.”

They’re both valid, yet apparently contradictory. The most realistic answer to both is probably ‘no’ – leaving everyone unhappy and shouting loudly that it’s all the government’s fault!

Opposition politicians focus on the elements of the system that people are unhappy with and implore the government of the day to ‘get their act together’. Governments spend a lot of time defending their decisions and casting doubt on their opponents’ thinking.

National politicians blame regional representatives and vice versa. I have no political affiliations and have never been a member, contributor or supporter of any political party but it’s clear that all parties face a common challenge – whether they have a majority, govern as a minority party or are part of a coalition.

Of course, it’s all about choices, priorities, balance and perceived fairness. And the key word here is ‘perceived’.

Governments, whatever their political leaning, can never satisfy everyone. This means there are always rich pickings for critics. Conflict creates drama, which creates juicy news stories – and that’s what we hear about!

We don’t get told about all the people who get great service from the healthcare system or fantastic education at state-funded schools or feel that their company is taxed at an appropriate level – because that’s boring and doesn’t make for good news.

This isn’t entirely the media’s fault – their behaviour is wholly rational. The media publishes material that their readers or viewers want!

When something is unsatisfactory or goes wrong we want someone to blame – this means we don’t have to think too deeply about the complexity and interaction of multiple factors or how we may have contributed to the problem.

I studied systems engineering many years ago. The problem with a system is that all the parts are connected in some way (if they’re not, then they’re not part of the system). The output of a system for a given set of inputs can be unpredictable or even chaotic – but it’s because of the way everything fits together, rather than the ‘fault’ of a single component.

Changing the inputs can often create unexpected and undesirable results. And understanding systems is complex and time-consuming.

But when we perceive a problem, we don’t want to know about analysis or pilot studies – we want change NOW – lower taxes, more spending, more doctors and policemen, more help for businesses, economic growth, better social care – tomorrow, or today!

The media and opposition politicians all know that material change can take time. But there’s no drama, story or ability to build a personal profile by asking for well-planned, solidly proven and balanced changes – where’s the fun in that?

So what’s my point?

When you listen to people making strident demands, ask yourself about their motives and whether they’re looking at the system as a whole.

People demanding lower taxes rarely suggest where spending should correspondingly be cut. People demanding more spending in one area rarely offer suggestions on where savings can be made elsewhere or how tax revenues should be increased without damaging the economy.

And if you read, see or hear a story that illustrates a real problem, think about all the boring stories you never see. Ask yourself, what’s the whole story?

Bob Keiller is the former CEO of Wood Group and now runs his own consultancy – AB15. Bob is also the chairman of Scottish Enterprise.

This article first appeared in LinkedIn Pulse.

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