According to Betty Sue Flowers, the former director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and a Professor Emeritus at the University Of Texas, there’s a group of 5 nearly invisible, but very deeply held cultural myths that affect nearly every decision we make.
A recent interview of Flowers by strategy+business revealed that her framework was so compelling that a group of scenario planners at Oxford’s Said School of Business dedicated to examining the financial crisis used two of her myths as the basis for alternative versions of the future.
What’s so compelling about the framework is that all of the myths represent viewpoints that are good in moderation, but can lead to conflict, paralysis, and bad decisions if taken too far.
Here are the myths, and why they’re problematic:
The economic myth: That growth is the singular and sufficient goal. The problem with this is that it leads to “leads to single-line measurements of success” like profit or market size. Everyone’s trying to grow these measurements, but systems can only get so large, which leads to big collapses. It’s one of the causes of the financial crisis.
The heroic myth: This is the belief that every situation has a winner and a loser, which makes people vulnerable if their side loses, and focuses decision making on the story rather than what’s logical.
The ecological myth: Putting the health of a large system ahead of everything else. It looks at everyone’s needs, which can be expensive and slow. Further, the health of the system is seen as so important that it’s prioritised even at the expense of common sense.
The religious myth: Not any one religion, but a generally ideological belief backed by religious fervor. That one belief can colour an entire worldview, and distort the decision making process. All opposing views are regarded as being dangerous.
The scientific myth: That there’s always an optimal solution that can be found based on reason. This myth puts too much value on the empiric, and blinds people to all of the other human factors at play.
In the interview, she gives a great example of how the myths play out in real life from her time at Shell. In 1995, Shell was applying to the British government to let an old oil platform sink in the North Sea. The plan was approved, but Greenpeace protested so much that the plan was scrapped.
Shell was a victim of the scientific myth here. They were looking for the most cost effective way to get rid of the platform while minimising environmental impact. In their view, that would create the most advantage for everybody. The media, however, loves the heroic myth. Greenpeace was David, and Shell, Goliath. They focused on young protestors rather than the engineers explaining the program.
Shell was seen as following the economic myth, that they wanted to grow no matter the cost to the environment. Greenpeace followed a religious myth, that any pollution of the ocean was unacceptable, period.
Eventually, Greenpeace admitted its error, after they talked it out with Shell employees, some of whom were members of the group themselves, but the story, the myth had already been written.
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