Get things in perspective — take the long view

We’ve been delighted with the feedback on our last couple of briefings with their focus on hope, happiness and the front foot organization. The encouragement to be positive has resonated strongly with a lot of people for whom the news seems bleak.

But in case you’re still feeling a bit browbeaten by tales of economic woe, why not try taking the long view on the human condition as a way of putting things in perspective.

If you imagine yourself back 100 years ago in 1909, most of the population, not just the relatively poor, would regularly be worrying about:

  • having warmth and light to live well through the winter
  • keeping in touch with distant and travelling family, friends and co-workers
  • suffering the risks of childbirth and infant mortality
  • facing the prospect of the country entering into another European war.

Some would be agitating about:

  • the rights of workers for fair pay and conditions
  • the role and rights of women
  • the impacts of colonial oppression.

100 years on and for most in the ‘developed’ world these issues are sorted (or have progressed hugely). Even allowing for the effect of the current downturn, it’s extremely unlikely that the sort of threats above will return to haunt us. At the same time, many many more of us have come to enjoy a wider range of pleasures in life, from art and entertainment to travel to food and wine.

And wait a minute more, it turns out that the experience of living in the ‘developed world’ is also one shared by more of the world’s population that we may think. You don’t believe me? Have a look at this fabulous presentation from Prof Hans Rosling shows how average incomes and life expectancies between countries have converged (often rapidly) with Asia making especially large strides. Increasingly, he suggests, this renders the generalised term ‘third world country’ meaningless for policy purposes.

As a health scientist, Rosling points to the importance of economic growth to pay for better health. He stresses the need for wise governance — and encouragingly believes that most governments (from UAE to Vietnam) have been evermore effective at deploying their country’s resources to improve the lot of their populations.

The broad brush of human history gives us hope:

  • a trust in humanity’s ability to improve its condition
  • belief that this is a great time to be alive
  • faith in the ingenuity of each successive generation to make the most of their inheritance.

Get a real job – make something

One of the responses to the recession is the belief that we need more manufacturing to create wealth for the country (to pay for the health and other well-being that Hans Rosling talks about). The cry goes round: “We need real jobs — people that make things for us to buy and to sell to other countries.”

People point to the fact that the UK manufacturing sector now only contributes 13% to the country’s ‘gross value added’ (one measure of GDP - see . How can we go on this way?

But that is to misunderstand how the economy works, the way different sectors are inter-dependent and how money recycles through. We value (and hence are willing to pay for) far more jobs than those that actually go into the making of physical goods:

  • retailers make it easy to buy what we want when we want it
  • transport operators help us (and our goods) get around
  • music, publishing, media and arts businesses inform and entertain us
  • tourism businesses help us travel and holiday
  • advertisers and agents make markets efficient
  • insurance and finance (helping us manage our anxieties and realise our dreams — ok they are a bit of a nightmare at the moment, but it will pass)

The list goes on. Workers in research, design, even managers and, dare I say it, consultants all help create wealth through their ideas on improving:

  • efficiency (taking out waste, using the minimum resources)
  • effectiveness (the service or product does its job better)
  • our experience as customers (ease of use, pleasure in the design, aesthetic and service).

Ironically, these are exactly the sort of principles indeed that you see applied in ‘lean’ manufacturing — where the making of the product is viewed as one (often small) part in the end-to-end chain that takes a good from raw material to the customer’s hands. Delivering value is key, not just making things.

And let’s not forget the role of public services in wealth creation. As Rosling points out, good governance means managing and protecting the education and health of the ‘human capital’ of the country (as well as designing out the biggest causes of destabilisation in society).

All these contributions are valuable to us and hence all contribute to create wealth. And, of course, customers in other countries will also be willing to pay us for these capabilities.

The lessons from this? First, don’t feel bad just because you don’t make things.

Second, more brainpower is the key to increasing economic prosperity. This is why we should be willing to spend more of that wealth equipping our workers (and crucially our children) with the minds and thinking skills to compete in a world where ideas, know-how, creativity, ingenuity and inventiveness count for more and more.

Want to get your ideas across like Hans Rosling?

We can’t claim credit (in fact, none at all) for Hans Rosling’s ability to put together a powerful set of arguments, based on compelling data, and then present it in a compelling and persuasive way.

We can, though, share with you many of the tools and techniques used by great communicators like him, as well as leading research companies, high profile media commentators, blue chip consultants and influential business thinkers.

Our highly evaluated course on Structured Thinking is running in March, April and May. We’d love to have you join us:

“L” is for Long View

And finally…to help us calm down and take the long view, we like this metaphor shared by a financial adviser we know:

“The global economy is like a computer, where you have typed 2,000 words of document but stupidly forgotten to save it and it freezes….  You panic.. You try clicking the left and right buttons of the mouse all over the screen, try to open up programs which are minimised to the taskbar and hit numerous keys on the keyboard including Esc and Enter...  You think about Ctrl + Alt + Delete but know that you will lose all of the 2,000 word that you have typed…  You decide to step away from the computer for a while to make a coffee and calm down...  You return to the computer just in time to see the screen flicker with all of your mouse clicks, with programs popping up and all your keystrokes before the computer dies and shut down….  With hindsight, it would probably have been better to go for a coffee earlier, leave the computer to catch up, and not panic…”   

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