2020-02-01_strategy+business

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airports that were expanded to make room for these additional fliers. An aging
population was perhaps less able to lug around a bag. Later, when airlines started
charging for checked bags, customers were even more open to better carry-on
suitcases. Changes in the nature of business attire might have played a role, too.
Like the media’s ex post facto explanations for the daily rise and fall of stock
prices, these speculations are blessed by hindsight. But in business, this kind of
observation and extrapolation, based as much as possible on experience, is essential
in deciding whether to bring a wheeled suitcase — or anything else — to market. It
may not be too much to say that business leaders earn their keep by predicting and
influencing the course of narratives, no matter how unpredictable these narratives
may seem. As Shiller writes, “An economic narrative is a contagious story that has
the potential to change how people make economic decisions, such as the decision
to hire a worker or to wait for better times, to stick one’s neck out or to be cautious
in business, to launch a business venture, or to invest in a volatile speculative asset.”
Narratives are accounts of patterns, and some people are very good at spotting
them. I suspect it takes a lot of imagination. At the same time, the human need
to create meaning can be a trap, because the world, like some naturally occurring
Rorschach test, serves up all kinds of stimuli that don’t mean much of anything.
Managers, in short, have to be wary of seeing patterns where there are none. This
phenomenon is common enough that there is a name for it: apophenia. In extreme
cases, it can be a symptom of mental disorder. But it’s simply human nature to be
seduced by the stories we tell ourselves — or that we hear from others — about
the world around us.
So sure, it’s important to ask yourself, “What’s my story?” But the questions
can’t stop there, because it’s hard to tell whether the story describes what is really
happening or simply what you’re thinking. Best to go a little further, and ask
someone else: “Do you see what I see?” +
Daniel Akst
danielakst@gmail.com
is a business writer, author, and
novelist based in New York’s
Hudson Valley. His books include
Temptation: Finding Self-Control in
an Age of Excess.

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