Margaret Heffernan: Uncharted: navigating the future

By Future Talent Learning

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Margaret Heffernan 00:31

Thanks everyone for being here and well kudos to mark and Robert for just an amazing slam on philosophy that frankly, are winning. Well, what an amazing moment we're living through, really for anybody who's interested in how organisations work.


It's been just a moment of incredible intense learning and that's quite interesting. The things that I think leaders in our organisations have learned. They've learned how important it is to look after people and to show that you care about them.


They've learned that if you trust your people, they trust you more in return. And we've discovered which some of us sort of knew that working from home was not a charter for slackers. It does really work. This is big learning.


But what I think so extraordinary is we could have done this experiment this whole shift in working patterns. We could have done this experiment 10 years ago, 15 years ago, but somehow we need it necessity to be the mother of invention for us. So now of course the question everybody's asking as well what happens next right everybody in the world seems to be talking about the future of work.


And I'm kind of more interested in right now in the presence of work presence. What is happening now, in these organisations now they've had this explosive intense experience of change what's going on now and what I see is that companies have sort of divided into two reactions were behaving as the first group has, after this moment of quite radical change, decided to become more radical to become more ambitious, and to do more experiments aren't waiting.


Having experienced change, they've really gotten a taste for it. So I'm interested in organisations like a collecting society for artists, that is now instead of just doing it through teamwork, intervening at kind of each piece of the ecosystem, to provide support and technology and global connections to ensure that artists get paid for their work not just in a crisis, but forever and have their rights protected.


And they're building a whole coalition for other societies collecting societies in other art to develop long term protection for all of them. It is a huge, breathtaking, positive contribution. Or I can look at companies like water utilities, for the first time ever working together as a network to provide better service to share experience and share expertise. Or I'm looking at companies like a music company called dice, which has built a platform so that musicians can actually earn a living from paid exclusive live events.


And I'm working with companies like retailers who suddenly finding themselves with quite a lot of empty space on their hands. Instead of just thinking how do we get rid of it? Actually, how do we use this asset and our core capabilities? To turn this space into something that's really useful for society that's really needed. Right now, how might we use this moment of uncertainty to become more valuable and more useful to the society that we serve? These are big, ambitious questions, provoking big ambitious experiments.


And what I think is so interesting about this group of companies is if they're more energetic, they're more future focus, and therefore, they're very much more creative, and they're doing a lot more experimentation. It's as if having done these huge explosive experiment at the beginning of lockdown, they've now really got a taste for it. And they don't want to stop. They want to go further. They want to go faster, and they want to they see in this moment of profound change, a gigantic opportunity to do more, better for more people.


Now, there is also the second group of company and they're okay. They're kind of heaving a sigh of relief. They did the big work from home experiment. It turned out it was okay. It turned out that their intuition that you have to look after people and trust them more and devolve decision making to a local level, that all work and they're kind of glad that it's over. And now what they're doing is they're waiting essentially, for the return of business as usual. I think they're a little homesick for the way that things used to be and what they can't see or they won't see or they don't want to see. Is it the old status quo? The business as usual, is gone. Because we live now in an age of crisis, right, we know we're going into an economic crisis, an employment crisis. We're already in a crisis of inequality. And we're already up to our necks in a climate crisis. And yet, somehow they have this lingering nostalgia for going back to something where that crisis, those crises weren't there. But they are there.


And I've been thinking really hard about well, why is it that they won't see this can't see this aren't prepared to do more change in order to become more adapted to this period of crisis? And I think part of the problem is that we've ever since the industrial revolution, we develop this notion of management, which is really a sort of three legged stool, forecast, plan, execute. You do the forecast and you do this punctilious plan, you measure everything that moves, and you execute magnificently.


And let's be clear that God has a very long way for a very long time. It made us feel safe, and it gave us a sense of being in control and we got very, very addicted to that sense of certainty, to our ability to forecasts to our ability to measure and control everything around us that matter. But today, we're in a really different place.


Experts in forecasting say that at the very best. If you're really open minded and rigorous and consulted gigantic range of sources, constantly update your forecasts and assign probabilities to them. If you do all that, then maybe the furthest you can see out with accuracy is 400 days. 400 day, if like the rest of us, you're not that rigorous. You're not that comfortable with probabilities. Then probably the furthest you can see with any accuracy is 150 day. And that doesn't mean you've got rid of uncertainty. It just means you cover less. So this is a very different space.


It's a very subtle shift that we've gone through over the last 3040 years, which is made our world increasingly unpredictable. And therefore has made that three legged stool of forecast plan execute, distinctly wobbly. We're starting to understand just how unpredictable the world really is. And that will the world we'd have it now. Need something much more flexible, much more malleable, much more responsive. We need the capacity to explore, to experiment to discover what works today.


What's relevant today. What's here today that wasn't there yesterday. And I think that that shift from a predictable wall or castable world to an unpredictable one is profound. And it's subtle, and there's no going back. And we need to pay attention to it. Because either we ignore it. And we keep wondering why this three legged stool is so uncomfortable. Or we do is these bolder businesses are doing and we accept a whole new mindset, which is a wall of experimentation, driven by a myriad of voices.


Where status doesn't come from titles, or even necessarily experience where respect comes just as it does in rehearsal rooms and studios and labs from simply having the best idea. Can we do that? Can we make that shift? I think we've seen we are saying we have the capability. We have the creativity in the imagination really to navigate the rapids of uncertainty. But have we forgotten how to use them? Are we too afraid of uncertainty to explore to experiment and to invent? I don't know. changing habits is hard. The political scientist Robert Putnam did a study of the 911 in the United States and he showed that after that crisis, social capital those norms of generosity, reciprocity and trust, they just shot up. It was measurable, how different people felt towards each other and behave towards each other.


But here's the challenge.


That different lasted for six months. And after six months, measurable levels of social capital, we're right back where they be before the tragedy how are we going to use this crisis to change fundamentally how we work together the capacity that we have to invent and to explore and to experiment or are we going to return as fast as usual? As fast as possible to business as usual, and keep trying to force fit a predictable model of leadership and management onto a world that simply won't behave. I think if we revert the norm we revert to what we've seen we stay stuck with anachronistic tools and ways of thinking that exacerbate the problems we're trying to solve right now. But will we make that transition? I don't know. I don't believe it prediction.


What I do know is that we're at a crossroads. We can stick to an old model for costing, planning, executing, measuring instead of talking more focus on numbers that aren't people, but we don't have to. We've just been through a huge experiment and seen that we can do more. Seeing that we can do better. And really, the choice is ours. Thank you.


Tim Campbell MBE 12:31

Amazing Margaret, thank you very much for for that that. Can't take away enough room from the pieces you talked about. Reciprocity obviously has been a common theme. It may become the new unprecedented of the moment in terms of what we need. But the bit I took away was around the energetic future focus that needed to happen with companies working with the likes of Rosaleen Blair, amazing chair chairperson or that is on demand solutions, who have always said about don't worry about today is where we're going to let's build that plan for the future. Our business, I rate, my placement, who I've worked with and Ollie signal, and you see that next stage of helping people I suppose my first question if you'll permit me would be, what do you see as the biggest things holding back companies from the levels of experimentation and imagination that you described in your so eloquent speech?


Margaret Heffernan 13:26

Well, I think the real problem I see is that we've been sold, I think, a kind of nursery fable about change. And the fable is that you can have lots of change, but you don't have to give up anything. And I think this is you know, this is particularly obvious to me, in the area of diversity, which is we've been told yes, we'll get women into the workplace, and they'll have equal opportunity, and it's fine. Nothing will change. It's just there'll be a women there. Right, which kind of overlooks the fact that Well, women aren't necessarily going to be present and have no impact. So there is going to be change, which means some behaviours and norms are going to stay, but others are going to have to go and I think we've seen exactly the same thing. In terms of why flights matter and the whole issue of ethnic diversity, which is, yes, people accept in principle, we want a more diverse workforce, with some people even accepted principle that this leads to better decision making. But nobody wants to give up their spot.


And if you have a board, for example, with 12 people on it, and traditionally these have been 12 white men, if you're going to have a diverse board that looks like the society you serve, then some of those people who think those are their seats are not going to get them. And nobody likes to talk about this, right? Nobody wants to say there's a cost correct, but you don't get change without sacrifice. And when I hear people saying we're going to have a transformation programme, we're gonna have a DNI programme, and, you know, nobody's gonna get hurt. Oh, hang on a second. Nobody went storming out to the beaches of D day saying it's going to be all fun, you know? Right. Nobody said this. And I'm not saying that it isn't worth it.


Of course, I think it's worth it. And I'm not saying that by the time this huge period of transition has taken place. It won't be better. I passionately believe it will be better. But in the interim, we are asking people to make some sacrifices and if we don't call it that, how can we honour it? And how can we thank people for stepping aside in order that their successor for example, not look like them? That I think is what nobody wants to talk about. But I think we've got to talk about it. Because if you just take that one thing said, Okay, everybody appointing their successor, they have to appoint someone who isn't like them. See how much you do? You would involve according to diversity in a short period of time. We we've got to start doing these experiments, and stop talking about theory and get into action, if we're going to maintain any kind of credibility as leaders.


Tim Campbell MBE 16:45

But, I think what you're talking to there really, really strongly is the fragility element for individuals and that as a human response, you want to protect yourself because you don't want to be exposed or be vulnerable, whether it's, you have hired somebody who came from a certain university have you or you have the same share a love of rugby, for example, whatever that may be. So how do we empower people, whether they're leaders or those who are trying to manage up to deal with that fragility?


Margaret Heffernan 17:17

Well, I think we have to look at a couple of things. I think we have to see that actually doing this is how we all learn. Doing this is how we participate in change, as opposed to sitting back and hoping we aren't just its victims. You know, I think the question here is, do you want to be passive and hope that somehow you know, you think flows over you? Or do you want to be a pest? Do you want to be an active part of this change? And actually start to create the world that you say you want?


And yeah, it reminds me of someone I used to share an office with years and years ago who once said to me, you know, the only reason I'm still here is because when they came to do layoffs, I wasn't around and they just forgot existed. And I think he was telling the truth, to be honest. But I thought you know is this the height that our ambition that we hope nobody will notice us? That change will happen? And then we'll put our head up, you know, above the parapet again and say, oh, yeah, I'm still here. Or do we actually want to be participants in the change in the world that we inhabit.


Tim Campbell MBE 18:33

And that's the that's the opportunity I suppose to engage in. I think a big part of the change that's coming around the corner, as well as on a societal level and an intellectual level is around technology. Technology is obviously accelerated. Lots of the changes we've seen. I think the experiment, as you articulated, of this time, has allowed us to test and try out technology. And look, we're a living example of that. I had to go and run and step up my my jacket game to match yours. But we were able to do that because of the technology that was there Right? But essentially, but essentially is changing us rapidly artificial intelligence automatisation of processes, etc. For you. Do you see that change through technology as a positive or a negative?


Margaret Heffernan 19:23

Well, I think it's a bit of both but I'll say a couple of things. First of all, I was very impressed by the clothes change. That's the first thing, the most important thing. The second thing I would say, is I you know, there's been this whole overwhelming rhetoric around the Fourth Industrial Revolution. And the whole gist of it was it's technology is going to change everything. Oh, and by the way, the technology is inevitable. There's nothing you can do about it, except to kind of understand it and giving gracefully, yes. And I think actually, this has been a complete distraction. Because I think a much more fundamental change is the unpredictability in the world.


And I think a huge amount of technology depends on is based on the assumption that there are a lot of predictable patterns, which technology can deal with very well. And I think the truth is in some areas, that's true and in many, many areas absolutely not true. So there's an awful lot of propaganda out there about what AI can do, and what technology and automation can do. It can do some stuff brilliantly stuff. It's complicated, repeatable drudgery. It handles magnificently.


Creativity, invention, absolutely not. And there's a third piece, which is that when we outsource work to technology, we are essentially losing the capacity to do that work ourselves. I've outsourced to my phone. The task of knowing my kids phone numbers used to be inconceivable you didn't know your kids phone numbers. Your head was full of all your phone numbers. I can't do that anymore. The faintest idea what my kids I am fine. With that. I am not fine. Without sourcing judgement and judgement to technology. And I'm not fine with losing the capacity to have conversations with people because the technology is doing this for me. You know, I start with tech companies who are inventing the technology so that instead of having a conversation, you can just tell me what to say. And I'll just read it from a screen and I don't actually really have to interact because the AI is doing the interaction for me.


This I think is really is really dangerous, not just because it feels ugly. But because actually if I lose the capacity to have a conversation with you, on my own steam without queues, I lose the capacity to think for myself and as I lose the capacity to think for myself, I lose the capacity, to be creative, to be imaginative, and to invent things that haven't happened before. Yes. And you know, and I think it we think it's impossible to imagine that but I'm very struck by the degree to which in lockdown, I noticed you know, my sister for example, lives on the road, whilst the habit of eye contact. Right, this is psychologically really important. change people's habits, you lose skills quite fast. So I think you know, I think technology is a sub story.


I don't think it's the main story. The main story is how do we retain confidence in our creativity and our imagination and not be persuaded by the salesman of Silicon Valley? That Oh no, they can take care of all of this stuff for us. The vile, written by machines is just as good as we all know, this is nonsense. And how do we instead of implementing all these apps, that will tell us how happy our employees are? Why don't we become better at talking to


Tim Campbell MBE 23:29

the simplicity of a why I love because you constantly are bombarded with outsourcing elements to make things more efficient, etcetera, when actually sometimes the most efficient thing is picking up yourself and walking across the two metres where the desk is in the old days, or picking up easier now the phone to have the conversation. How are you? We're running out of time we've got so so many questions for you for the last one. I want to get to you, what in the last 15 seconds, what do you want to leave with the audience?


Margaret Heffernan 24:05

Don't lose confidence in your imagination. Don't be afraid that if you just follow the rules and you become super efficient, everything will be okay. Efficiency is only effective in situations where everything's predictable and you know what you're being efficient for. But in a in an age of uncertainty. Efficiency erodes your capacity to respond. It erodes your margins for surprise and the unexpected. And this is what human beings are brilliant at. So don't trade security for thinking.


Tim Campbell MBE 24:47

Beautiful, Margaret, thank you. The virtual round of applause is coming in. People are obviously acknowledging the greatness of what you've shared with us today. On the chat. There's loads of questions that people want to throw you. I think we deserve another session just you on your own. And I'm sure Jim will facilitate that in one of the output but there's an in addition to making the grade of quality of shirts and jackets upgrade increase without all your awareness of what we can do as organisations as leaders around making sure we haven't put our heads in the sand and that we can go through in that uncharted space optimistic rather than being blind to the checkout Margaret's book on all good stores out in the market was out in March download. It will be on my book, says Margaret, thank you so very much. Enjoy the rest of your day.


Margaret Heffernan 25:33

Thanks so much.

Note: If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio of this video. Transcripts and closed captions are generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


In a world of increasing volatility and uncertainty, a clear sense of purpose should provide direction. For entrepreneur and CEO Margaret Heffernan, leadership requires vibrant and proactive vision: seizing new ways to work and throwing out the old.

Key points

  • Leaders in organisations have learned the importance of caring for and trusting their people during times of intense change.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that remote work is effective, debunking the idea that it's only for slackers.

  • Companies have divided into two groups in response to the changes brought by the pandemic: one group is becoming more radical, ambitious, and experimental, while the other is waiting for a return to business as usual.

  • The world has become increasingly unpredictable, challenging the traditional three-legged stool of forecasting, planning, and executing in management.

  • Embracing change often requires sacrifice, and leaders and organisations need to acknowledge this fact to make meaningful transformations, especially in areas like D&I.


More about Margaret Heffernan 

Dr Margaret Heffernan's sixth and most recent book, Uncharted: How to map the future was published in 2020. It quickly became a bestseller and was nominated for the Financial Times Best Business Book award, was one of Bloomberg’s Best Books of 2021 and was chosen as the “Medium Best of the Best” business book.


Margaret’s third book, Willful Blindness : Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was  named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times. In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for A Bigger Prize: Why Competition isn’t Everything and How We Do Better, described as “meticulously researched…engagingly written…universally relevant and hard to fault.” Her TED talks have been seen by over 27 million people and in 2015 TED published Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes.


Future Talent Conference 2020 

This talk was filmed at the virtual Future Talent Conference 2020 on Purpose Meaning and Culture.


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  • embed meaning into all of our activities
  • drive value through a culture of investment in human-centred skills, inclusion, leadership and development.
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