May 21, 2015

Interviews: A Q&A with Margaret Heffernan

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 8:00 AM – Filed under: Leadership & Strategy, Personal Development & Human Behavior

Once we see mistakes as learning, and therefore not something to be punished,
people feel safer to think for themselves, they’re more willing to share learning and therefore organizations are able to improve constantly.
—Margaret Heffernan

Today, we continue our Thinker in Residence with Margaret Heffernan with a series of questions about her new book, Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes.

Q: You have a great line in the introduction that "At the heart of any robust culture is an idea of leadership that isn’t about second-guessing—markets, shareholders, bosses, and peers—but having the courage to think and speak for oneself and on behalf of others.” And yet, just a few paragraphs later you describe that in every part of the world you visit there is an aversion to conflict that undermines that courage. So, it seems that this aversion, which I had always attributed to my upper midwestern, Lake Wobegonesque humility, is actually hardwired into our DNA. What are some specific things we can add to the decision making process at work to make sure people speak up? How do we create cultures in which we can think and speak freely, even if it’s just to ask a question they’re unsure of the answer to?

MH: I am very skeptical about saying anything is hardwired into our DNA. I think the lack of courage we see frequently in employees and leaders derives from multiple sources. One is education: in most societies, education focuses on teaching us the answers to questions—and usually there is only one answer. You do well in school when you find that one answer quickly. This is true right up to graduate school. It’s poor preparation for work, innovation and leadership where there is always more than one good answer and the best answer is often counterintuitive. But the first 20-30 years of life that focus on getting the right answer and being rewarded (or punished for the wrong one) and that militates against independent thinking and makes people afraid to think for themselves. Add to that high levels of personal debt (high cost of education and housing) and economic volatility (so jobs feel insecure) and you will see high levels of obedience, compliance, and conformity. Authoritarian leadership styles will exacerbate this. How to create a culture where that is not the case is the focus of all my work—because we need everyone to say what they see and what they think. It’s how we get early warning of threats; its how we get early notice of new trends (Microsoft missed the internet, Google missed social networking and leading packaged goods companies came late to the bottled water business.) So how do you create a culture where people feel it is safe to speak up? You have to build social capital so it’s safe for people to think together (much more detail of this is in the book.) You have to eliminate forced ranking which creates a persistent sense of threat and which rewards the norm and the average. You have to celebrate the people who do think for themselves. And you have to demonstrate independent thinking by doing so yourself. Great questions are helpful, as is a style of leadership which is less about omniscience (I have all the answers) and more about drawing the best from everyone around you. I worked with a senior leader who felt he was surrounded by smart people but wasn’t sure how to get the best out of them. I suggested he ask for their help. He looked aghast—and grudgingly conceded he might be able to ask them for advice. There’s a big difference between the two. Asking for advice would incur a lot of second-guessing; asking for help might have inspired a lot of fresh thinking. But he felt he was expected to know all the answers and therefore could not ask for help—and so did not get much from his people. He was trapped by what he imagined to be the expectations of leadership.

Q: You say mistakes are way stations of progress. How so? And how can we avoid stigmatizing both the mistakes themselves, and the people who have made them (or made a decision that led to them)?

MH: Mistakes are how we learn. When we learned to walk, we fell over a lot. So the key thing about mistakes is learning what they have to teach us: what went wrong, what went right. Once we see mistakes as learning, and therefore not something to be punished, people feel safer to think for themselves, they’re more willing to share learning and therefore organizations are able to improve constantly. The lead investor in my software businesses once told me he didn’t mind my making mistakes—as long as I didn’t make the same mistake twice, which would indicate a failure to learn! The Torres wine company keeps a big book of mistakes which everyone from the CEO down must write in when they make mistakes—and new recruits must read the book. This both shares the learning and shows that mistakes at the company aren’t career-ending unless malicious. The aviation industry is very good at this too. They use the substitution test: if something goes wrong and it would have gone wrong regardless of who did it, then that’s learning, not negligence or incompetence.

Q: In the chapter on social capital, you talk about the benefit of long-standing teams. That is really great to hear for us, because about half of the staff at 800-CEO-READ has been here for over a decade. But there’s also the need in business to constantly refresh your outlook, which new talent does naturally. But, if there is little or no turnover, what step can we take to maintain a steady stream of new ideas and knowledge?

MH: Nice to hear that about CEO-READ! I think it’s critical that everyone in the company recognizes a responsibility to keep replenishing their well-stocked minds. It’s far more efficient for everyone to do that routinely than to interject a few new people into the mix. In one company I work with, every quarter there is a new theme which everyone has to research on their own and then share their findings. In another, time is taken out of “real work” to share new ideas, concepts, products etc. that the team has noticed. Making everyone responsible for their ongoing development is both rewarding for individuals, inspiring for teams, and efficient for the business. Once again, it’s vital that this is done in an atmosphere of safety so that what might appear to be off-center ideas aren’t booed out of existence!

Q: We tend to think the hardest, most effective workers are those that work the most, but you tell us that working fifty-five hours a week actually decreases our performance. You bring up the idea of "quiet time” to help counter the interruptions and meetings that often waylay productivity so that we can all be more efficient. Can you briefly explain the idea and its benefits?

MH: So we have known since the earliest productivity experiments in the 1880s that human productivity levels off and then declines at around 40 hours a week. In crunch mode, you can extend this but not for long. But we all recognize that there are 2 kinds of work: quiet time work (often described as “real work”) which is about silent thinking. And then there is everything else: meetings, email, phone calls, casual encounters in the hallway. Numerous experiments indicate that protecting quiet time by a few rules (e.g. no meetings before 10 am or after 4pm, no meetings on Fridays, that kind of thing) increases helpfulness: once people know that their quiet time is protected, and that therefore they will get the real work done, they’re more generous helping others the rest of the time. This accelerates knowledge flow in the organization which has a stunning impact on productivity and may be the only way these days we can get more from people.

Q: Can you talk a little about the problem of hierarchies and power, and why distributing power and letting “the best idea lead” creates a more robust, responsive culture?

MH: Hierarchies are deeply problematic for several reasons. First, they reinforce the bystander effect: I don’t have to intervene when I see a problem or an opportunity because “someone else” will: those above, who are deemed to have more responsibility, or those below whom I might, as CEO, think have responsibility. Second, steep hierarchies are correlated with high degrees of corruption: the super-powerful feel immune to rules and the powerless feel the rules don’t work for them so they have to find workarounds. Third, steep hierarchies make the workforce feel that safety is about pleasing those above them. This hugely constrains original thinking and generates second-guessing in its place. Hence you have the situation where leaders feel they don’t get fresh thinking from their people and the workforce feels they aren’t being stretched or able to contribute to their full potential. This is a stalemate I see in large global businesses the world over. When you distribute power more widely, you approach the holy grail of accountability: a culture in which people do not feel they need permission to take responsibility. This is what you want: everyone thinking like owners. When they see an opportunity, they say so at once! When they see a threat, they do likewise—or sound the alarm. This alleviates the impossible burden of responsibility laid on most leaders today. The current business environment is too complex, volatile and fast for one person—any one person—to know everything. So the only adequate response is to ensure that everyone is listening, looking, thinking. Of course it’s also important that that workforce is diverse—too much affinity and everyone just sees the same thing, which was a theme of my earlier book Willful Blindness whose thesis, alas, is endlessly played out.

When you distribute power more widely, you approach the holy grail of accountability:
a culture in which people do not feel they need permission to take responsibility.
This is what you want: everyone thinking like owners.


Find out more about Ms. Heffernan's fascinating past and watch the TED Talk that inspired the book in yesterday's installment of her Thinker in Residence with us.


If you'd like to learn more about the book before diving in, you can find additional information in our New Releases channel. And be sure to check back in tomorrow when we conclude our series with our standard round of final questions about business and books.

About Dylan Schleicher

Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.