Innovation Conversation #12 — Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur, CEO, writer and keynote speaker

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I’ve been wanting to talk to Margaret ever since I saw her speak at the Vision conference in Bristol a few years ago, so I was incredibly happy to get the opportunity of speaking with her on the phone for this interview. At Vision, she gave a version of her superchickens TED talk, which I found inspiring and exciting in equal measure. Exciting because here was someone articulating so beautifully many of the things I had thought or felt in a much more unformed way about creativity, people, and the importance of human relationships at work as well as at home. And inspiring because Margaret speaks sense with such clarity, and in such an approachable way, that you feel that positive change is simply a matter of us being as human as we can be: at work, at home, and in how we work with each other.

Could I start by asking you the question I ask everybody, which is how you would define innovation?

It’s finding new ways to solve problems or new ways to do things. It’s not necessarily problem-related.

One of the reasons I was particularly interested in talking to you is that I come across a lot of customers who say they want to build a culture of innovation in their business, and I know that your recent book, Beyond Measure, was all about culture. Do you have an opinion on what people mean by a culture of innovation?

What they mean or want is a bunch of people who are energetic and enthusiastic about coming up with great new ideas. The reality is that they do almost everything they can to kill that. They want measurement, certainty, predictability, guarantees, risk reduction, all the things that will not deliver what they say they want.

People want innovation because they think that new stuff sells better than old stuff and new ways are more profitable than old ways, but they don’t want to take any risk. So they’re driving with their feet on the accelerator and the brake simultaneously, and wondering why they don’t get anywhere. They want innovation but they don’t want anything to change.

They’re driving with their feet on the accelerator and the brake simultaneously, and wondering why they don’t get anywhere.

Many of the things you suggest in Beyond Measure are small and fairly easy to implement. At one point you mention Atul Gawande and his medical checklists, and I remember listening to his Reith lectures and thinking, this seems so obvious somehow, it seems such a small thing. Why do you think people are so resistant to taking these small steps?

Most of them don’t feel they have any power, or they’re afraid that if they initiate the change they’ll provoke a reaction that they don’t know how to manage. They’re afraid that they might be wrong, and that being wrong means they’ve failed. Almost all people in the workplace today also feel that their employment is deeply precarious, so they don’t want to risk it.

Do you think that’s become worse, this feeling of having precarious employment?

Yes. Sometimes it’s because they’re on zero hours or short hours or temporary contracts, or their company has restructured and laid off people so often that even permanent contracts feel like temporary contracts. This is probably exacerbated by large amounts of personal debt or mortgages so even if you have a secure job, if you have a mortgage for three times your annual salary you are precarious. That’s not a mindset in which you’re going to take great imaginative leaps or creative risks.

I’m interested in going back to what you say about people being afraid to be wrong, and failure. I’m particularly interested in stories of failure and how sharing them can make it feel okay to fail. Do you think companies are very bad at being okay with failure?

Oh, they’re terrible! No company wants to fail. I was working with a huge company yesterday and they recognise a need to disrupt themselves but the last experiment the organisation did they regarded as a failure. The lesson they learned from it was, don’t do any more experiments unless they’re going to succeed.

Which is not really the way experiments work, is it?

No. This was a partnership firm where all the partners make $1 million a year or more, and the cost of this mistake they reckoned was $8–10,000 per partner.

That doesn’t sound a lot compared to what they’re making.

It’s not a life-changing amount. In fact, it’s maybe less than they spend on a short vacation, but with that level of ‘failure,’ they were not prepared to try again.

How does one overcome that attitude to failure?

The deeper question is, how do they get to a place where they’re all so afraid?

It’s a long line but we have an education system that teaches that there’s a right answer for everything, and the people who answer quickly are what we call clever, so you have 14 years of education that teach you to be an expert second-guesser. Then you go into organisations where you are evaluated and assessed constantly, and if you fit in you get good grades and if you don’t fit in you get bad grades, so you start off walking down a very narrow road that gets narrower and you do not step off the pavement. This is catastrophic for creative thinking, which is all about stepping off the pavement and walking on the grass.

The deeper question is, how do they get to a place where they’re all so afraid?

Business schools and management schools came out of engineering schools and so our mental model of management is an engineering model. We try to turn people into machines that will repeatedly do the same thing perfectly over and over again, and we’re very good at that, but when you say, ‘But now I want you to create something different all the time,’ that’s not what you designed the machines for. So we have a management theory that doesn’t fit the market needs.

Absolutely. I’ve written about systems in the past, about the fact that systems rely on you pushing button A, and output B coming out, but as soon as you bring people into the system, you don’t know if you’re going get B. You might get B, you might get C, you might get Z, which would be fabulous.

Exactly. The evidence seems to suggest you will get what you want but the problem comes when you don’t know what you want. We know from history that you can take a whole bunch of perfectly sane, normal people and make them do something absolutely vile, repeatedly and reliably. We know we can do that. That’s what management has taught us. We don’t know yet how to build systems where people will come to work every day and be creative, original and honest.

Management has taught us that you can take a whole bunch of perfectly sane, normal people and make them do something absolutely vile, repeatedly and reliably. We don’t know yet how to build systems where people will come to work every day and be creative, original and honest.

That’s interesting that you mention sanity — you talk a lot about the myth of the solo entrepreneur being quite a destructive thing. How much does this myth foster an anxious and scared culture where people feel they have to know it all and do it all?

I think it has two consequences. In some cases it frightens people and in the opposite case it makes people overconfident, over-pompous, it makes them feel they have to puff up themselves and their rhetoric to the point that really nobody believes a word they say any more, least of all them, so either people are intimidated or they have to blow themselves up to inhabit this mythical identity.

Going back to Beyond Measure, you talk about fostering social capital in teams, and about it compounding with time. One of the things I see with a lot of the companies I work with is that they want to change a culture overnight. The other issue is people working with virtual teams or teams of freelancers and contractors who come in and out. Are there ways that companies can build social capital quickly in those situations?

They have to think about this differently. Mostly people are bringing in outsiders because they want to cut costs so they’re still using people like widgets, it’s just that now they’re replaceable widgets. If you want to have an innovative infrastructure, you still have to invest a lot of time in relationships. A lot of companies are using freelance people as plug and play talent, but if you don’t build relationships with people, why would they want to work with you? They have choices.

I come at this from the perspective of working in radio and television, where if you want really wonderful actors, writers, directors, designers, composers to work with you it’s not enough to ask them or pay them well. They have to want to work with you, they have to respect your work and know that you respect them. I worked with some of the best actors, writers, and composers in the world but they didn’t do that because I paid them obscene amounts of money, they did it because I offered them projects that really suited them. I invested ages in getting to know them and understand them. If you’re not prepared to invest time in understanding people and thinking about their abilities, talents and what they want as well as what you want, then the plug and play model may be cheap but it’s not going to be creative.

You’ve talked in the past about watching auditions and seeing that the magic is about the interaction between actors rather than the talent innate in the individuals. When you were recruiting great actors to work with, did you pay as much attention to who you were putting them with as you did to getting the right person?

Absolutely, because if you’re lucky you’re provoking a chemical reaction, so you can’t think about teams as just soloists in the same room.

You’ve talked about whether leadership is more of an art and whether we should draw more from the arts than engineering. Does that work the other way? Do you think more art should be collaborative, like orchestral music?

All art is collaborative. Our addiction to engineering as a mental model for collaboration — not so much engineering as, shall we say, manufacturing — is really unhelpful because it suggests that producing great work is mechanical, predictable, and there’s an awful lot of evidence that it doesn’t really work. It means we’ve created organisations that take incredibly talented, creative people and make them incredibly dull. I don’t think everybody started out that way. I don’t think when they joined these firms at the age of 21 or 22 that they were born in suits carrying briefcases, but that’s what we’ve done to people. Your point about mental illness plays in here: we’ve put people into organisations, we haven’t really treated them as human, we’ve put them under incredible stress, the external environment has exacerbated that stress, and then we wonder why they don’t feel great.

There’s a school of thought, isn’t there, that humans are naturally these competitive beasts, that we’re born to survive and tread over others to get there, but from what you’ve said it sounds like you see this as being more a product of our current education and work systems. Do you think we’re naturally collaborators?

What we are naturally is quite a complicated idea because in which state of nature? 18th century, 15th century, second century BC? I don’t know that anybody has the faintest idea about what the raw, unvarnished human being was once. But society has developed to the level that it has by people working together. You can’t do anything alone. You can’t communicate alone. Language is a great collaborative activity and language is what has allowed us as a species to learn generationally. Without language you can’t transfer knowledge from one generation to another so that act of collaboration in and of itself makes us profoundly distinctive.

So each generation can build on the one before rather than making all the same mistakes?

Yes. We can learn from science and literature and so on, we can learn from history, which means that we don’t have to do the same thing every single generation in order to find out that if you drop a ball it will fall.

I went to a conference recently where 3M presented, and they talked about their innovation hero award. It struck me as odd to reward a single person for things that surely are the product of teamwork, but also building on science that has gone before.

That’s right, and creative people who don’t give credit have very short careers because nobody wants to work with them.

One of the things that I tell myself to console myself when I get worried about whether I’m writing anything original is that there isn’t anything original. It’s all building on something else.

It’s interesting because we may have fetishised originality. What’s crucial is that your ideas may not be new, but you’re speaking to a new audience in a new time in a way that connects with them, and that’s what counts.

You touched very briefly at the end of Beyond Measure on the changes being brought about by robotics. Do you think creativity is something only humans can do?

I don’t know. Certainly I think that’s true now. I sat at a big data conference a while ago. The analyst presenting played two pieces of music and challenged the audience to identify which was real Bach and which was computer-generated Bach. The fact that the audience was divided proved, he said, that you couldn’t tell the difference. This is what you call bad thinking. It actually proved that half the audience didn’t know anything about music. You couldn’t generate the fake Bach without the real Bach!

It’s essentially copying the patterns, isn’t it? And Bach is very patterned.

Bach is very patterned, music is all about patterns. I thought it was an exceptionally bad illustration. The short answer is, we don’t know what machine learning is really capable of. We definitely know that you can use software and robotics to repeat repeatable activities. We know that we can use some AI and big data to find patterns that individuals would not find on their own, so we can use technology to amplify this kind of activity. Whether machines will ever be genuinely creative, I don’t know, and while I know a lot of people in Silly Valley have this goal, I think it’s pretty uninspiring. Quite why they want to replace themselves with machines I don’t know, unless they see themselves as bad machines, in which case they would do better to work on becoming better people! I’m genuinely puzzled and made uncomfortable by the rhetoric coming out of Silicon Valley that says humans are fallible, but we will be able to make machines that don’t make mistakes and therefore create a world that’s perfect. I cannot imagine anything as dull and the only driving reason to do it, it seems to me, is to make money.

What are you going to do when the machines are doing everything? Where would be the fun? It’s an interesting idea.

It’s bankrupt. It’s aesthetically, intellectually, morally bankrupt. Let’s say you can invent the machines that invent the machines that do everything perfectly. Then what?

It’s aesthetically, intellectually, morally bankrupt.

We invent machines to do tasks that are too boring or tedious or time-consuming for us to do, but if a machine can churn out a million novels a day then you’re going get bored of them. There’s something marvellous about human creativity and ingenuity. Its rarity is almost the marvellous thing, isn’t it?

The rarity is of course what gives it value, the rarity and the resonance of it, so I don’t see what the attraction of this machine-driven world is, nor do I trust the people or the motives behind it.

On that note, you talked very, very briefly in your epilogue of Beyond Measure about a Denver resort where their one question is to ask, ‘How do I make customers a little bit happier?’ I spoke to somebody from Virgin Care a while ago, the private health company, who talked a lot about happiness as a measure of achievement.

It struck me that in some ways, almost all of what you talk about is to do with increasing happiness, both at work and at home. I wondered how you felt about that?

It depends a lot on what you mean by happiness. My personal feeling is that if we’re talking about people at work, mostly what people at work want is to be understood. They want people to see what they’re capable of and they want the opportunity to fulfil that. Fulfilling what you’re capable of in the abstract, long term sense may make you happy, but in the short term it may make you unhappy because you don’t get there straight away.

It’s not that people want a happy day all day, every day, I think that’s moronic. It’s that they want the opportunity to be seen for who they are and given the opportunity fully to develop their capabilities. That’s going to require energy, determination, courage and stamina.

It’s like what you were saying about this bankrupt world where machines do everything. If there’s no challenge any more, if there’s no struggle, if there’s no work then what’s the point?

What do we do all day? Exactly.

You’ve talked about how entrepreneurs are quite often people who had ideas that they couldn’t use at work or their organisation constrained them so they broke free and went and did it by themselves, but it’s hard being an entrepreneur, isn’t it? It involves pain and suffering along the way.

It does and it isn’t for everybody, because not everybody has the motivation. I used to teach a course in entrepreneurship in the US and somebody asked me, ‘Do you measure the success of course by the number of people who become entrepreneurs?’ to which the answer was no, because not every person wants to be an entrepreneur and neither do we need everybody to be an entrepreneur. Start-ups need people to work in them.

The other thing that’s important is that there’s a cliché that says entrepreneurs are all emotionally immature, incredibly young and mostly male. The reality is that the most successful entrepreneurs are not 18 to 22. They tend to be middle-aged because they have experience and networks and expertise. In the United States, women-owned businesses tend to be more successful than male-owned businesses. I think we have a very, very narrow, clichéd, discouraging model.

The other great myth of entrepreneurship is it’s not worth getting out of bed unless it’s a multibillion-dollar world-changing idea.

The Silicon Valley unicorn.

Exactly. There are almost none of those and there are scads of failures that nobody ever talks about. Those myths matter because they’re discouraging to people who have excellent ideas and great motivation for perfectly good, respectable companies that will provide good jobs and good services to people who want them.

You have some fantastic stories to tell and you’re an excellent storyteller. I’m very interested in storytelling as a tool generally, but with an entrepreneurial story people always assume a level of planning or intent. ‘So-and-so started a business and they did this and it resulted in this culture, and then this amazing thing happened.’ They always assume the person knew what they were doing from the beginning. Whereas a lot of the time they’re just stumbling along, trying their best.

Yes, we call it the narrative fallacy. Almost all business is improvised and the other example is science. Scientists write up their research as they started at A and got to B. The reality is — and this is exactly the same with business — I started at A, aimed at C, found myself on D, and after wandering around the alphabet in a dazed and confused way I ended up at B and rewrote the story. The problem with doing it this way is that when other scientists get dazed and confused, they think they’re stupid and inadequate and become very frightened and depressed and anxious, so it’s important to tell the real story about all the mistakes and confusion and fear along the way, so people realise it’s normal.

If you don’t get to the dazed and confused stage, you’re recycling old stuff and you shouldn’t bother.

If you don’t get to the dazed and confused stage, you’re recycling old stuff and you shouldn’t bother. If it isn’t painful and if you don’t go through a phase of being dazed and confused, you’re not trying hard enough.

Which takes us back to why companies are scared of innovation, because there is that dazed and confused bit in the middle. And you don’t know if you’re going get there.

No, you absolutely don’t, and if you’re not prepared to take the risk, the one thing you know is that you won’t get anywhere new, you’ll just get what you know already. That’s why I’m quite amused by all these companies doing transformation programmes. When you start looking at them closely, they are nothing of the kind. They’re cost-cutting.

This is also to Robert Gordon’s point about the failure of economic growth, because all this stuff we think of as innovation actually isn’t, it’s just a different way of doing the same old stuff. His argument is that certain innovations like refrigerators and washing machines really changed the way that people lived, but a lot of the so-called digital innovation doesn’t do that. Washing machines and refrigeration fundamentally liberated women to enter the workforce. That was a huge change and a gigantic economic driver but just being able to do the same old, same old in a slightly different way makes no impact to the economy.

It’s like going from mono to stereo. It’s nicer but it’s still the same old tune.

Before we run out of time, I wanted to ask you about your own personal journey to where you’ve got to today. You seem to spend a lot of time talking to lots of different people. Do you follow your nose? Is it basically curiosity or is there a pattern? Do you know what you’re looking for before you go off and talk to people?

I definitely don’t know what I’m looking for. It’s a great question because going back to the narrative fallacy, by the time I finish the book it looks like I knew what I was looking for. But I write the books because there’s something that gets my attention and I think, ‘I don’t understand that, I wonder how it works?’, so I follow my nose.

There’s stuff that interests me and I collect it in my head or on my desk or in filing cabinet and I try to figure things out and one thing leads to another. I’m pretty fearless in asking people to help me. Then I try to piece something together in a way that makes sense, at least to me and hopefully to other people. A Bigger Prize was derived from a sense that everybody was saying competition was great, and it seemed to me that it was pretty much present at every crime scene. It led me to think it clearly doesn’t work the way its proponents say it works, so how does it work?

With Wilful Blindness again, it was a sense of wow, there seems to be a lot of this stuff. What’s going on that these things happen right in front of us and we don’t notice them? It really does start with a question and something that won’t let me go. I probably have an idea for a book almost every week and my test of those ideas is can I forget them? If I forget them they’re definitely not worth writing, so I end up writing the books on questions that just won’t let me go.

But the deeper issue, and the reason I’m so perverse in doing this, is because organisations are full of people and to write about organisations as their own unique life form without reference to what’s happening to those same people at home, in their families, in their schools, in their hobbies, is to me dishonest and disingenuous. Mothers, sisters, neighbours go into work, and disconnecting those identities is one of the worst things that we do as a society and as organisations. We have got to keep understanding how these fit together or we’ll make really bad choices and poor decisions.

I absolutely agree. This is one of the reasons I was keen to talk to you, because when I did my Masters’ in management, I was always interested in the people that made up the organisations, and this idea of identity as well. There’s a much more fluid boundary now between your personal identity and your professional one, which in many ways is really good but also can have some negative impacts.

It’s absolutely absurd to imagine that the two don’t bleed into each other. In fact, what people want is this horrible phrase, values congruence. They want to be doing different things at work from at home but they want to be living according to the same values in both places. It’s very stressful to be a command and control super-boss at work and a lovey-dovey dad at home. Where you find people are at their most creative is when they feel they’re allowed to be whole people and this is a very hard boundary to manage because clearly work isn’t home. We’re very poor at managing this boundary and we’re poor at managing it because we either think they’re completely separate, which is untrue, or they’re exactly the same, which is also untrue.

One of the other reasons I wanted to speak with you is because you’re doing very much what I would like to be doing at some point in the future. I was wondering if you had any advice you could offer me with the benefit of hindsight, looking back on how you’ve got to where you are?

Whatever success I’ve had has been because of two things: first of all, excepting areas of physical danger I’ve said yes to everything I could in order to learn as much as I could, so although there’s a lot of emphasis in management thinking and so on about strategic choice-making, in my own personal development on the whole I don’t think I was very strategic. I said yes to a lot of stuff and learned a lot of stuff very fast, and that was the right thing to do, at least for me.

The other thing I would say is when I reviewed where I’d been and where I’d got to, I realised that the best opportunities I’d ever had had come to me from people who were junior to me, not from rich, powerful people. I think the reason it happened is because quite unconsciously I’ve developed a way of working with people that is non-hierarchical and which takes everybody seriously.

Almost anybody can be interesting, can’t they, if you get them onto the subject that they’re enthusiastic about?

That’s exactly right. I’ve always approached people assuming that they would be, and have very rarely been disappointed.

Sadly we ran out of time at this point, but Margaret’s faith in people always to be interesting is absolutely what I’ve found with these interviews — everyone has a story to tell, and it’s always a good one. Hers is particularly good — I hope you enjoyed reading it! Do clap if you liked it.

This article was supported by idea management platform Solverboard. Do check out Solverboard Work, their suite of idea management tools that help organisations inspire, capture, measure and reward the collective intelligence of their people.