Margaret Heffernan Transcript

Dr. Margaret Heffernan is the author of six books including Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious At Our Peril and Uncharted: How to Map the Future and Professor of Practice at the University of Bath. Margaret also has a TED Talk called The Human Skills We Need in an Unpredictable World which has been viewed over 3.6 million times.

Before getting involved in business Margaret produced programs for the BBC for 13 years. She is currently Lead Faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme and she also mentors CEOs and senior executives at major global organizations around the world.

While Margaret was writing Willful Blindness and a short book for TED called Beyond Measure she noticed that she kept having weird conversations with people who were asking her a lot of questions about the future. What’s going to happen with Brexit? What’s going to happen with Trump? Will there be another banking crisis? And it was during this time that Margaret realized that most people do not know how to think about the future.

People tend to think that a select few lucky people are able to see into the future and give us all updates on what will happen next. But in reality, the future is unknowable, there aren’t any special keys to use or doors to look behind to find out what’s next. And in thinking about this she came across Philip Tetlock’s research on forecasting, which showed that if you are consistent with your study of the future if you read a very broad cross-section of impeccable sources, and if you keep up with each forecast perfectly the farthest out you can see accurately is 400 days.

But since most of us are not as consistent or rigorous as that, most of us can accurately forecast 150 days in the future. Which means the way most organizations plan with 3-year plans, 5-year plans, and even sometimes 30-year plans, is a very inaccurate and ludicrous way to go about it.

“This is madness, the way we’ve been–everything about the way we’ve been teaching, management does not work. If the first part of forecasts, plan, execute, doesn’t work. And we’re going around using a 20th century, maybe even 19th-century mindset in the 21st century, and no wonder things are going horribly wrong.” And that is why she wrote her book Uncharted.

Should we forget about forecasting altogether?
Since the way we are forecasting is completely wrong, should we still do it? Should we continue thinking about the future? Margaret believes that absolutely, we should be thinking about the future and forecasting, but we have to be humble about how accurate we are likely to be. And she says we have to start asking different questions.

We also have to realize that there is a difference between complicated and complex. Complicated things are things that can repeat and can be predicted. Complex things are unpredictable–even if they seem simple. That’s because there are a lot of different forces acting on these things which then causes constant change.

In complex environments, Margaret says you have to do two things. First, you have to forget about efficiency, because that will strip you of the capacity to respond. You have to think about preparation instead of planning. And second, you have to think about what high-impact events have a high likelihood of happening. What are some things that you can’t predict, but you can prepare for because there is a good chance it will happen.

Think about what things could really undo your business and do what you can to cushion yourself against that as best as you can.

What role does data play in decision-making?
Data is very useful to have, but only if you know how to use it and if you know the best questions to ask. Data in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand it can be dangerous. Margaret says that data is a powerful tool in scenario planning. It can help you to see all of the possible stories that could occur and it can help you plan for each one.

“The difficulty comes, I think, with a lot of executives who want certainty. And so they think they get to choose a narrative, right? But you don’t get to choose, you only get the option of thinking about it ahead of time. So that they find it difficult, and many of them simply find it too hard to conjure up different narratives. So it’s partly that their biases overwhelm them. But it’s also that you can take any data set, and we have quite an optimistic and quite a pessimistic story. And so surprise, you know, they generally find the optimistic one. And they find all kinds of reasons why the really truly bad one couldn’t possibly happen.”

One thing that Margaret truly believes executives need to work on is their lack of imagination. Leaders cannot look at the world in a two-dimensional way, we have to be able to look at the good, the bad, and the ugly in order to properly navigate the future.

Leaders could have been planning for a big event like the pandemic, but a lot of them didn’t, and a lot of them, even now, are not preparing for other extreme possibilities. Leaders need imagination in order to think ahead to what kind of future they want to create.

“It dismays me that we have this fantastic opportunity now to reimagine work. And that makes most so-called leaders so anxious that they would rather cut, pop, go right past the creative part of that exercise and start thinking about how much square footage do we need? How many desks, how many chairs? But if you do that, and then later you decide I want this kind of future. You may not, you know, you’ve got the wrong furniture in the wrong offices, you know, you’ve really got to be able to lift your head out from the weeds and think long term about what is going to make our organization meaningful to the world long term. What kind of people are up for that? And how do they want to work? And when you’ve done that really well, then the desks and chairs will be the easy p

Employee experience has never been more important than it is now, especially after COVID. But less than 10% of organizations are doing a great job of creating them. What are the best companies doing? Take the employee experience assessment to see how your company compares with over 252 others around the world!


How can leaders think more creatively about the future?
As Margaret shares, most leaders have been trained in a 20th-century mindset, which is about cause and effect and it’s about complicated versus complex. Most leaders spend too much time looking at spreadsheets and figuring out 2%-3% adjustments when true foresight and planning takes a lot more creativity than that.

Planning for the future isn’t about sitting in your chair and looking at data. It’s about argument, debate, and discussions. It’s not something that can be done quickly, it takes a lot of time and effort.

In her book, Margaret uses the example of Cathedral projects, which is a phrase of Stephen Hawking’s. All of the cathedrals of the Western World were started by people who knew they would not live to see them finished. These buildings have evolved over generations and have constantly incorporated new technologies, materials, and aesthetics. The people working on them stop and ask themselves what does the world need from us right now. And a lot of leaders can learn from that type of mindset.

“There’s a bank in the UK whose purpose statement is ‘To help Britain flourish’. Now, I don’t know what that means. I mean, you could say they could be a gardening center. They could be a health care center. They could be pet breeders, they could be any darn thing. So this is, I mean, sadly, corporate comms just got the idea of purpose between its teeth and ran away with it. But I think this need to have a genuine soul-searching debate about what makes us meaningful to the world, what earns us our license to operate, is sorely needed in most organizations.”

What can leaders learn from artists?
Margaret has always been fascinated with how artists work because so many of them seem ahead of their time. So how do they seem to look into the future and create such relevant pieces? One of the biggest reasons they are so ahead of their time is because they take time to observe and take notice of things around them. They ask questions, they take things in, and they take risks. They also tend to change before anyone asks them to.

Leaders can learn a lot from artists. Take time to look around you. Ask things like what am I seeing and what does it mean to me? What patterns am I starting to see? What’s going on in the world right now? As Margaret says, generally we see what we’re looking for, and we miss everything else. We have to give ourselves time to let our minds wander, we have to be curious, we have to go in new directions, and allow ourselves to sit in silence and think.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or your favorite podcast platform.

If you want more content like this you can subscribe to my Youtube channel.

. . .

Employee experience has never been more important than it is now, especially after COVID. But less than 10% of organizations are doing a great job of creating them. What are the best companies doing? Take the employee experience assessment to see how your company compares with over 252 others around the world!