Margaret Heffernan: The Big Impact of Small Changes

Author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan speaks with SchoolCEO about building strong organizations and cultures through relationships, continuous improvement, managing uncertainty, and more.

By SchoolCEO Last Updated: October 12, 2023

Episode Summary

Author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan speaks with SchoolCEO about building strong organizations and cultures through relationships, continuous improvement, managing uncertainty, and more.

Episode Notes

Join one of the best episodes of Season 2 with author, CEO and TED speaker Dr. Margaret Heffernan. This episode can help any school leader that is looking to better drive change, build a stronger culture, and ultimately to build the best possible district and school:

  • How small, frequent changes can be more effective for organizations than big, sudden transformations
  • The importance of constructive conflict and different perspectives within collaborations
  • Strategies for open communication and honesty within organizations
  • The value of social connections and relationships (social capital) in schools and businesses
  • Why efficiency can sometimes undermine effectiveness in complex human systems
  • Preparing students and organizations to be adaptable, resilient, and manage uncertainty

Key Quotes & Timestamps

“What truly changes organizations are small choices made by everyone.” [00:04:04]

“Collaboration often requires constructive conflict and debate to reach the best ideas.” [00:07:21]

“Taking 5 minutes to talk to somebody before or after a meeting can really help you get to know people in the round.” [00:29:40]

“The teacher or executive that takes a personal interest in somebody - it is probably the most potent tool they have.” [00:40:11]

Guest Bio

Dr. Margaret Heffernan produced programs for the BBC for 13 years. She then moved to the U.S. where she spearheaded multimedia productions for Intuit, The Learning Company and Standard & Poors. She was Chief Executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation and then iCast Corporation, was named one of the “Top 25” by Streaming Media magazine and one of the “Top 100 Media Executives” by The Hollywood Reporter.

The author of six books, 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 13 million people and in 2015 TED published "Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes".

Her 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. She is a Professor of Practice at the University of Bath, Lead Faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme and, through Merryck & Co., mentors CEOs and senior executives of major global organizations. She chairs the board of DACS and is a parish councillor. Learn more about Margaret and her work at

Episode Transcript

Margaret Heffernan (Guest): We don't know what skills people are going to need in the future. What we do know is that what will stand them in excellence. Stead is a love of learning. If they love learning, they will be able to learn whatever it is they need to know next. And so, you know, the meaning of learning gets lost when you, when you really put all of the focus on grade, what you want to focus on is developing people who love learning and know how to learn and get great joy out of learning. Those people will always be resilient because they have the greatest tool they need, which is the ability to learn and the ability to learn with other people and from other people.

Tyler Vawser (Host): I'm Tyler Vawser, part of the SchoolCEO team. Here at Apptegy, we publish original perspectives and research that helps school leaders build a strong identity for their schools. Along the way, we have conversations with superintendents and other K12 leaders, marketing experts, and more to help you brand and market your schools in a highly competitive environment. Published quarterly in print and online, SchoolCEO is the only magazine focused on marketing in K12 public education. And this is SchoolCEO conversations: marketing for school leaders. 

Today on SchoolCEO Conversations, I speak with Dr. Margaret Heffernan. Margaret has produced programs for the BBC for 13 years in the UK. And then later she moved to the US, where she spearheaded multimedia productions for companies like Intuit, the Learning Company, and Standard Imports. She was the Chief Executive of Information Corporation, Zion Zone Corporation, and then ICAST Corporation, and was named one of the Top 25 by Streaming Media Magazine and one of the Top 100 media executives by The Hollywood Reporter. A five time CEO, she's also been prolific and has written six books. Her 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. And in 2015 she was awarded the Transmission Prize for her book A Bigger Prize: Why Competition Isn't Everything and How We Do Better. Her Ted Talks have been seen by over 15 million people. And in 2015, Ted published Beyond Measure the Big Impact of Small Changes. It's one of my favorite books, and in particular, the chapters about social capital are extremely instructive. If you're working with people, you're managing people, and you're thinking about how to build a strong organization. Her most recent book is called Uncharted: How to Map the Future, and it was published in 2020, and it focuses on the challenges of the future, how to prepare for uncertainty, and why we might want to prepare to be adaptable and agile instead of efficient. 

I invited Dr. Margaret Heffernan to join SchoolCEO because her work goes to the root of what so many of our conversations in the magazine and on this podcast are about, which is building a strong school district. And at the heart of a strong school district is a strong culture that makes it possible for everyone within it students, staff, teachers, parents, and community members to be constantly improving, to have important, hard conversations that help create the best environment and allow the district and the schools within it to be constantly improving. This is by far one of my all time favorite interviews that I've done, and I think you'll enjoy it too. My hope is that as you listen, you'll relisten and take notes, but also that you'll share it within your school district, especially with those that are closest to the central office, to those that are leading, like principals and building leaders and begin a conversation about how you can challenge one another and create a culture that is not only enjoyable, but really pushes each other to do your best work. Let's join the conversation. 

[Intro Music]

Tyler Vawser (Host): Well, Margaret Heffernan, thanks so much for joining SchoolCEO Conversations.

Margaret Heffernan (Guest): It's a pleasure to be talking to you. I'm looking forward to it.

Tyler Vawser: You have an incredible number of books and Ted Talks, and one of the quotes from your book says, “what truly changes organizations are small choices made by everyone.” Do you mind explaining that a bit more?

Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, I think it came out of a period in which a lot of organizations were going through what they rather grandiosely called transformation programs, where they were kind of trying to change everything, soup to nuts. And what that tended to reveal was that those programs were very expensive, they were quite lugubrious, and they mostly didn't work, and they were kind of too heavy, too complex, too confusing, and they kind of made people feel that a lot of stuff was being done to them. So that didn't necessarily inspire a huge enthusiasm. It was just in a busy day, one more thing to do or 15 more things to do. And in the face of that evidence, I thought, well, maybe we should look at things differently and think about the day to day things, which actually, if I did them differently, might make me feel different, might make the people I work with feel different, might kind of change the atmosphere. So I think in my head, it was a kind of antidote to these monster let's change everything at once programs.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that makes sense. Schools are traditionally pretty hierarchical, right? There's a defined system. It's almost like the military, in a way, where there's a very defined structure, and that structure has worked for quite a long time. But a lot of your work, your advice, is about how to break free of those hierarchies and enable people throughout the organization to be able to affect change.

Margaret Heffernan: Right. And I think that first of all, I think a lot of people, once you brand something as change, they kind of instantly gets their backup, right? Partly it makes them feel, well, we've been doing something wrong. Why have we been I don't think we've been doing anything wrong. Have we been doing anything wrong? And so I think it's a very heavy handed way to keep people's minds open to instead the notion of constant improvement and the fact that we can always do something better. I don't think there's anything we do in life that we really honestly, if we spent a bit of time thinking about it, couldn't have done somewhat better.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I like that. Reframe. Constant improvement is something that I am involved in and part of the process, whereas change is being forced or hoisted upon me.

Margaret Heffernan: That's really wrapped over the head with it. Exactly.

Tyler Vawser: You've been inspirational to me in my own work because you talk about the importance of conflict within collaboration. Sometimes we think about collaboration as this beautiful process, but you're actually pointing out that conflict is an important and necessary part of effective collaboration. Do you mind talking about that? And if you have time, I'd be curious to hear a bit more about Dr. Alice Stewart and her colleague George Neal, because that's such an interesting kind of historical moment that makes this point. So.

Margaret Heffernan: I mean, I think collaboration often has acquired a reputation for being a bit cozy, but, oh, let's all play nicely together, kind of bit of a sort of scout troop. And I would say that when you're collaborating on stuff that matters, which is true in schools, it's true in most kinds of work. If it's been done with real ambition, it often must encounter a lot of conflict because lots of people will have different ideas. We know that really great ideas generally start off as rather poor ideas, and it's by talking to people and trying stuff and thinking about things that they improve. So necessarily they involve quite a lot of debate. And the Wright brothers are famous for the sort of screaming arguments they used to have, which they called scrapping, which is how they figured out how to fly. So my argument is really that to collaborate effectively, you need really at least two things. You need other people who will come at the problem in a different way, and you all have to have a capacity to endure the ensuing argument, recognizing that it's how you get to a better place. 

And one of the examples that I encountered when I was doing this work is the incredible story of Alice Stewart. Really. I think she was a very unusual doctor in the sense that she was one of the very few female doctors in the UK before the Second World War. She was very, very successful student, one of the first women doctors to qualify at a very young age for the membership of the Royal College of Physicians. And once she was up and running, she decided to specialize in a new field then, which was the field of epidemiology, which is the study of patterns in disease. And being an ambitious young scientist, she knew that if you really want to make your name, you have to find a hard problem and solve it. And then the problem she chose to solve was the problem that there were rising rates of childhood cancers and that these seemed specifically to concentrate in kids in pretty well off, well educated families. 

Now, as I think most people know, roughly speaking, disease tends to correlate with poverty and poor education. So what was so fascinating about this problem was that it flew in the face of received wisdom. So that's always interesting, because something different is going on and if we could figure out what it was, that might be a big deal. Now, bear in mind, this is at the end of the Second World War. There's no internet, there are no easy surveys to do. So Alice has to design a survey which is typed out, carbon copied and sent to health visitors all over the country. And 500 go to parents who have had kids who've had cancer and 500 go to parents of kids who have not. And the survey asks all sorts of random things, like what kind of housing they have, what kind of heating they have, do they have indoor outdoor plumbing? What's the diet? What kind of exercise do these kids get? She knows she only really has one shot at this, so she has to ask everything she can think of and then the health visitors have to send this stuff back in the mail. This is really good, old fashioned research. And as the results start to come back, she's really struck that by a rate of three to one. Overwhelmingly, the kids who have had cancer, and most of them at this time die of cancer, have mothers who were X rayed when they were pregnant. So this is an extraordinary revelation. It's also at a moment in medical history where X rays are seen as the cure all for almost everything. And this suggests that, at least in this case, x rays may not be helping kids, they may be harming kids. 

So she rushes into print and everybody gets very excited because it's quite unusual to have such clear data. And she starts instantly doing more research, hoping to catch all these cases, because she thinks, well, people are going to stop X raying mothers when they're pregnant and the cases will vanish and we want to learn everything we can while we can. But in fact, she didn't need to rush because it was 25 years before either the British or the American Medical Associations stopped X raying pregnant women. So what that meant is that Alice had to fight the establishment for 25 years. So that's quite a very daunting challenge. 

And one of the great assets that she had, really, was she had a researcher, George Neal, who was absolutely different from Alice. Alice was very sociable, very outgoing, everybody really enjoyed her company. George was what nowadays we would probably call a nerd. He didn't like going out, he didn't have a lot of friends. He kind of preferred numbers to people. But of course, that meant he really thought differently. And in particular, I think he thought about his job differently because rather than thinking, I need to please my boss, what he thought was, I have to see if I can prove that she's wrong. Because he realized that if he could come up with some other explanation for the data that would actually help Alice, she needed to know she was right. So he had to try every other hypothesis in the way that he analyzed the data to make absolutely certain she was right, to be confident in her results. So in a way, you can see know Alice is arguing the problem is the X rays, and George is arguing, well, let's look at everything else, because unless we've excluded everything else, you don't really know, do you? And I think this is a beautiful model of collaboration. And I would say from my own experience as a CEO, I think one of the huge problems is people tend to suck up to people in power, so they want to tell you what they think you want to hear, where actually what you need are lots of countervailing voices, different mindsets, different frameworks, different perspectives. Really, if you're going to understand the problem more deeply. And I think this is what George's brilliant collaboration offered to Alice Stewart.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it's a great example, and I think it relates to so many things day to day, but also to hiring. We tend to hire people that look like us, think like us, have same experiences, and what we actually need in many cases is just the opposite. Someone that doesn't look like us, doesn't think like us, and has had different experiences and can push us in those ways that are blind spots for ourselves.

Margaret Heffernan: Exactly. And I originally wrote the example up in a book called Willful Blindness, which really looked at how it is that quite often we do ignore what's staring us in the face. And we need people around us who will say, well, come on, come on, mom, what about this? What about the other? And I don't think there's very much that we do in our education system to facilitate that. In particular, I think one of the most damaging things that we do we're very fond of is multiple choice tests. Now, a multiple choice test, in essence, in its very structure, implies there is one right answer. Well, in real life, sometimes there are no right answers. Frequently there are several right answers, and frequently there are a few answers that are better than the other answers which aren't entirely wrong. So I think we too early and too easily encourage people to think, no, there's one right answer, and if you've got it, you're smart, and if you don't get it, you're stupid. And that's that it's a real barrier to critical thinking and a critical collaboration.

Tyler Vawser: How do you think we can help students become great thinkers where they are really thinking about all the right options and be more aware and cognizant of not just compromise? Right. But those different possibilities. How do you think school leaders and teachers alike can help students do that?

Margaret Heffernan: Well, I think the really crucial thing is to be able to have, if you like, low stakes debates about particular subjects. There are many different ways to set solve the same math problem. Why is one way perhaps better than another way? There are many, many different ways to interpret history. What's the perspective on an event in history from women, which might be different from men, from children, which might be different from adults, from African Americans, which might be different from Hispanic Americans, which might be different from Anglo Americans? How did people see it at the time and how do we see it now? This perspective taking is really critical, and of course, one of the great tools for perspective taking is fiction, where we often can see a story, a narrative, unfold from multiple perspectives. And I think this capacity to see that there's always more way to think about something than one's own, which may have strengths and weaknesses, I think this is a really fundamental bedrock of what education should be about absolutely.

Tyler Vawser: Within our own teams. If you're a superintendent and you're listening to this, you might be asking, I would love to have someone like George Neal to push back at me that I can trust, that they're looking for how to make things better. But I also know that they're in my corner and they're my partner. They're a thinking partner, as it were.

Tyler Vawser: So in your own experience, Margaret, you've been a five time CEO. What can we do to create that kind of culture where people feel free to nudge and to challenge, but there's still an element of trust and there's still a camaraderie and that collaboration, even where conflict is present?

Margaret Heffernan: Well, I think it's important, first of all, to have an explicit discussion of the degree to which an argument isn't an attack. That in general, if people are prepared to say, I think it might be better this way, or have we considered this or have we considered that, that's a gift, right? That's really a gift, because the easiest thing for me to do, if I think you're about to do something stupid, is just roll over and play dead and bear no responsibility for the outcome. And then if it all goes down in flames, then I can say, well, I never thought that would work. That's the worst possible outcome. And it's selfish because I'm protecting myself. I'm not really thinking of the good of the institution or the good of my colleague. So I think it's really important to see that argument is a gift. Somebody's invest in time and thinking in a decision or in something that you were talking about and doing that is in itself a gift to you. I think the second thing is to try to keep it cordial forever, which takes a lot of patience, I know, but assume goodwill and bring goodwill and constantly to frame it as, wouldn't it be better if could it be better if how can we make this better? Because clearly there's going to be some fallout. Is there a way we could do it where there would be less fallout? Given that very few decisions are perfect, is there a way we can make this decision less risky? So really try to think about how can you position your contribution as a benefit rather than an attack?

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really helpful at SchoolCEO. Our next issue of the magazine focuses a lot on internal communication. How do you take ideas that are at the top and bring it throughout the organization? How do you have problems and opportunities that are at the bottom and move them up to the top where things can change? And so I'm curious, from your perspective, both in your experience, your research, your talks that you've given, what are the strategies or what are the examples that you've seen of really effective companies and organizations that are great at internal communication?

Margaret Heffernan: It's a wonderful question. I guess I would say it tends to be not always, but frequently. It tends to be little and often. Rather than a blockbuster newsletter that comes out, I guess, once a semester and has everything in it you want to know, I think that means none of it gets special attention. I think a lot of the best communication is face to face, and I know that we all had to get used to digital communication during the pandemic, but I think the return to face to face communication has reminded people of how immensely useful and more meaningful it is. I also think that if you're looking for decisions from people, it's very helpful to give them thinking time or cooling off time. 

So we need to make a decision about such and such. Let's try to make the decision by Thursday evening, but I'm not going to act on it till Monday. So if anybody suddenly thinks of something that you think could really derail it, there's time to let me know. I would only do that in very, very important decisions. But it's really interesting to me how in meetings, people can make decisions. Everybody's gung ho and then you're driving home or walking home or having lunch or whatever, and you suddenly think, hang on, what about such and such? Or what about so and so having some cooling off period? If it's a really important decision, I think is critical. There's been a lot of talk about psychological safety and the need to create an environment in which it's very safe for people to speak up. And I think that's a nice idea. I think it's extraordinarily harder to achieve than anybody imagines in the sense that what feels safe for me isn't the same as what feels safe for you. I bring my own history to it. I may not feel meetings are safe. I might feel one to one conversations are. I might feel that speaking up in a large crowd isn't safe, but I might feel that sending you a private email is. 

So I think if it's a matter of real importance, it's critical to allow those different forms of communication. As I say, I'm generally a fan of face to face communication, but there are some people who aren't. And so it's important that there's still a way they can contribute to the decision making. Yeah. I think however safe you try to make it, people's own life experiences and professional experiences will color how they experience it. And it's wrong to think that what feels safe to me feels safe to everybody.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really like that perspective. I also like what you started with was little and often right. Instead of making an event, it's more relationship based. And I often give this example when we're talking about our own culture here to new employees, which is if my wife said, hey, I have some feedback for you about how you're unloading the dishwasher or how you're working with the kids. And I said, well, that's great, but our quarterly review isn't for another six weeks, let's talk about it then it probably wouldn't go very well for me. Right. Whereas relationships are feedback. Now let's talk about things right away. Let's not wait for it. But somehow in a business or an organizational context, that becomes normal. Right. And so I really like the idea of if internal communication is going to be successful, it's going to be frequent, it's going to happen in bite sizes, and it's going to be actually a foundation for a relationship because that's how relationships are formed, through small moments like that.

Margaret Heffernan: Well, I think so. On the other hand, there are times when I'm sure people want to give me feedback and it's pretty much the last thing I want. So you also have to be a little sensitive to the fact that if I'm just jumping into my car, it's probably not the perfect moment. So one has to be a little bit subtle about this. But the example I always think of is as children, when we were learning to walk, we didn't wait for a monthly or an annual review to get the feedback to figure out why we kept falling over. We got the feedback, which was the falling over. And then we thought, well, let's try something different. I think it is really important to give feedback as a suggestion or an offer of help.

Tyler Vawser: Culture is obviously a buzzword. It's squish, it's soft, everyone uses it. But I don't know that anyone particularly knows exactly what it means but you talk about it in a different way, which I actually found to be more useful and fresh. And that was this idea of social capital. And I wonder if you could just dive into that your work and some of the advice and perspective that you have on social capital and maybe why that term could be more helpful than something like culture.

Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, sure. Social capital is a term that grows out of sociology and anthropology, and it's really about the kind of norms of generosity, reciprocity and trust that emerge between people, and particularly, I would say, emerge between people who work together over time. So if I think of some of the individuals I've worked with over the course of my career, they've learned a lot about me. I've learned a lot about them. I've learned, as they have, about strengths and weaknesses, where we're good at covering for each other, where we may not always be best for each other, that kind of thing. And that's why, contrary to some people's belief, teams of people get better over time. They don't get stale. By and large, they get better because they develop a great deal of trust which allows them to do the conflict implicit in collaboration with much, much greater ease. I mean, I can think at the moment of a phenomenal woman who worked for me in several of my companies, and almost everything she did, I could not possibly have done. 

But most of the things I did, she couldn't possibly have done. And yet we had this incredible collaboration, very, very different backgrounds, very, very different talents. And I really came to the point where I thought, this is the greatest work I've ever done, because we pushed each other. The real thing we had, I think, in common was we had a great ambition in the best sense to do outstanding work. And we thought, if at any point there's any way we could make it a little bit better, we've got to do that, because not doing that would just be letting each other down. That's a classic example of social capital. It has nothing to do with the rigmarole of performance management systems. It's a kind of shared bond, which is excellence is what joins us at the hip. And if I can do anything to help her work be better, and she could do anything to help my work to be better, we would. But that really takes time. It takes time together. It takes getting to know each other. It takes levels of forgiveness. When you see somebody do something you don't understand, just thinking, okay, well, let's try and understand this rather than jump to blame or criticism. 

And in organizations, it's very much about having time together. And I am really struck since we've come out of lockdowns and we can move very much more freely than we could during the height of COVID I am very struck by how people have lost these habits that they won't take the five minutes after a meeting just to catch up with someone. They won't say anything when they see somebody looks a bit down in the dumps, they're so busy, they're so eager to crack on that they don't take the time for the conversation, which isn't transactional. I think this is a gigantic loss. I'm astounded how if you take just five minutes to talk to somebody before or after a meeting, if you do that before, after every meeting, you really do get to know people bit by bit, little by little, in the round, and not just as their job title or their function or their expertise. And that means they become more open to you, which means you have more to offer each other, which means that your collaboration is going to be richer.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I really like that. There's something that I found that when you talk to people beyond the work and the tasks, that generally if you get to a certain place, you open up enough to where you realize you too, I thought I was the only one. And I think that's so encouraging. Everybody's thinking the same thing or has had the same experience, but they think they're on an island, that this is limited to them. And in fact, probably the majority of people have had that same experience, just nobody's talking about it.

Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, well, I think that very often happens, and I think in organizations where you have high degrees of social capital, people will talk about those things. I mean, there's another story in my book Willful Blindness about two academics who went to a faculty meeting and on one agenda item was to discuss a new program which from lots of meetings around the coffee machine, the vibes have been really negative. And when it came up in the formal meeting, nobody said anything. And I think that's a very common occurrence. And as good academics show, they thought this was quite puzzling and went off to investigate it and discovered that when they asked groups of executives, do you have ideas or concerns at work? You don't voice. 85% of them say yes. That's a terrifying number because it means that mostly people aren't saying what's foremost in their minds, which means if you're in a leadership position, you're pretty much flying blind. You have all these clever people around you, but they're not speaking up. So this issue of building social capital so people can speak up is really crucial. And there's a ton of social science research also that shows it just takes one person in a meeting to say I'm not so sure, and suddenly all of the other people who weren't so sure either take heart and start to speak up. But if nobody does, nobody does.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah. What's interesting to me and you touch on this in your work as well, is this kind of idea of efficiency. Organizations and businesses are obsessed with. Efficiency, and often it's at the cost of effectiveness. And I know there's a very famous kind of study and research from neighborhood community based home care service in the Netherlands. I've read about it in a book called Reinventing Organizations. I noticed that you mentioned it in your talks and it's just such a beautiful example of how efficiency can actually undercut the purpose of the efficiency in the very first place because it's not always very effective.

Margaret Heffernan: This is a really fascinating story. I grew up in the Netherlands, so anytime I have an excuse to go and do more research there, I'm very happy to do so. The Dutch healthcare system depends hugely on home care nursing because it's very well understood that hospitals are dangerous places to be. They're full of disease and they're super expensive and it's kind of miserable for people to be sitting in hospitals all day long if they can get up and be at home and be with friends and relations and so on. So they try to get people out of the hospital as fast as they can and to supplement their care by sending nurses round to check and put on new bandages or check wounds or whatever, just to make sure everybody's healing and recovering appropriately. And the way they used to do this, and they do this still to this day here in the UK is the insurance company would say, okay, so this is patient A with disease B. We know recovery time is, I don't know, two weeks. 

So we're going to assign a nurse to patient A to treat this for two weeks. Monday for ten minutes will be the visit, Tuesday will be five minutes and so on. And they schedule it very minutely, obviously in order to get maximal usage from their nurses, which was what they would define as a high priced asset. Right, so you're sweating the assets. Now there's a problem with this, which is that actually predicting how long it's going to take somebody to recover from a medical procedure is close to impossible. It depends on an enormous number of variables. It certainly depends enormously on mental health, it depends on living conditions, it depends on social conditions. It depends on all kinds of things which make it inherently unpredictable. 

But anyway, that's how they run the service. There are two problems with the service. One is the nurses hate it because they just feel like they're kind of mailman, really. They just come, do the thing, go off again. And the other problem was the patients hated it because they thought they were a bit like the mail, they were just a package. And one of the nurses, who fortunately ironic, well, I don't know, unusually, had also trained as an economist, thought, well, this is a horrible system, how could we improve it? And it's an interesting problem because you can't really solve it by fiddling with a spreadsheet.

So he proposed an experiment in which he said, well, since the nurses hate it, the patients hate it, let's just try managing the nurses different. Let's just change one variable. And what he did was say, okay, we'll assign a nurse to each patient and we'll just say, do whatever you think is right. And in the light of the misery that this system was causing, it's worth the experiment. So they had a team of ten nurses looking after a group of patients. Very wide array of diseases and procedures from which the patients were recovering. And over the period of the experiment they discovered that the cost of providing the service fell by 30% because the patients got better in half the time. Now, this is a really fantastic outcome. There's no way you could have predicted it. What's interesting is thinking about why are they getting better? A very big part of it is because they have the freedom and the time to build relationships with the patients. And we know that relationships make a difference to people's recovery.

For example, there's a fantastic experiment done on people with back pain. Back pain is a super hard condition to treat. And we know that you could give one patient with back pain a tablet, a pill. You can give another patient a pill and a five minute consultation and that second patient will get better very much faster. The first patient may not get better at all. So we know that the social relationship between the physician and the patient or the nurse and the patient is really critical. So part of what's happening is they're actually building a relationship. The other thing is that they're using their judgment as to how much time does this patient need because they understand that they're not all the same, they're not identical, so they can't be predictable. And in some households, which I visited with some of these nurses, there was lots of family around, there was a lot of support. Really all they needed to do was go in and check the bandage and go sometimes they didn't need to be there more than three minutes, let's say.

Other situations, like one that I saw the patient concerned had just lost a very dear friend who died in a motorbike accident, very distraught condition. We spent about an hour having a cup of coffee with him and talking to him. These things make an enormous difference to recovery. But the thing about efficiency is efficiency works beautifully where you can predict exactly what you need, when once you can't predict that, efficiency actually starts to destroy the problem you're trying to solve. So the really crucial thing is to be able to distinguish between the problem where you really can control everything in the work. Just like in a factory, you can control everything. And the things where there are lots of variables, many of which you may not even see and most of which you can't control or influence the difference between those two things is enormous.

Tyler Vawser: I can't think of a better example for education. I think about students and the complex relationships that they have at home and in the classroom. And I think very often we're trying to make education highly efficient. And when you look at the best teachers, they're not thinking about efficiency. They're thinking about an individual student and really trying to help them process their whole life. Right. What's happening outside the classroom, what's happening in the classroom, their relationships between the students.

Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, I see this both in schools and in the workplace. It is phenomenal, the difference it makes when the teacher or the executive takes an interest in somebody, it is probably the most potent tool they have. And it may not be efficient to have a long conversation with somebody, but it may actually change their lives. Now, I completely appreciate in the American, as in the British education system, there are many days in which it's impossible. There are many situations in which you can't do it with everybody. So you have to make judgment calls. You have to make judgment calls about where is it really going to matter? But I'm fascinated in the corporate work that I do that first. It's almost as if bosses think they've outsourced their humanity to human resources. Right. 

It's like they're doing the management. I'm just going to tell these people what to do. And I'm astounded by the number of workplaces I meet where the supervisor articulates no interest in the people they're supervising. And then they ask me, how do I make my people more productive? Well, I can tell them instantly. Take an interest in them, make them feel that they matter. It has an incredible impact, and it goes a long, long way. And often our desire to be efficient so bigger, faster, cheaper, do more quickly at less expense, or our desire to be fair, I can't spend five minutes with that person because then I'll have to spend five minutes with everybody, really impedes our effectiveness. And sometimes the truth is that student does really need five minutes, and that other student really doesn't.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it's like the bandage, right? If you have a strong social network, you might not need much more than a bandage change in the nurse example. But if you've lost a close friend, you need to spend more time with someone just processing.

Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, if your dog died or any number of things. And it's also, of course, about role modeling, which is if you want your students to be great creators of social capital, then they have to see you deploy yours.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, let's talk about that a little bit. So Julie Lithgit Hames has been on this podcast. She has a great book called Raising Adults and another one called it's your Turn. And it's basically about how young people can become adults. And a lot of it has to do with not academic success, but really helping students and young people learn how to adapt and thrive at a human level. Right. And I think it matches nicely with your work because while parents are worried about grades and college admissions, people like you and Julie are much more concerned with things like the ability to be resilient, to build friendships, to overcome what you don't know is coming. What challenges are ten years ahead, we can't say. But preparing students to have the resiliency and the social capital to overcome those things?

Margaret Heffernan: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think there are kind of two things that your observation barks in me. One is you're absolutely right. We don't know what skills people are going to need in the future. What we do know is that what will stand them in excellence, stead is a love of learning. If they love learning, they will be able to learn whatever it is they need to know next. If they grow up with a sense, as I see very often, certainly in schools here in England, a sense that school is all about the grades. If you get the grades, that's all that matters. And really, once you've graduated high school, got into college, got the qualification you need, then thank God that's over and you can stop. That's almost counter education. Right. 

The other thing you see in the US and the UK is this harping on grades really does persuade students that the grade is the only thing that matters. So if the grade is the only thing that matters, well, who cares how you get the grade? Which is why we've seen Epidemics of Plagiarism, which is why at university almost every piece of work has to go through plagiarism software. This will get even worse, of course, with ChatGPT. And it's also why we see kids turning to drugs like Adderall, thinking, well, if I can get a better grade, if I taking Adderall, well, I'll just do that. Never mind that it's going to wreck my brain, I'll become addicted to it and rather hyperactive. And so the meaning of learning gets lost when you really put all of the focus on grades. What you want to focus on is developing people who love learning and know how to learn and get great joy out of learning. Those people will always be resilient because they have the greatest tool they need, which is the ability to learn, and the ability to learn with other people and from other people.

Tyler Vawser: I guess maybe my last question is I actually would be curious if you could talk a bit about your book Uncharted, because we were talking about uncertainty and the future for students, but obviously that impacts all of us. So I'd be curious to hear you talk about how leaders can prepare themselves and their teams for an uncertain future where there's change and there's ambiguity.

Margaret Heffernan: Well, I think actually one of the most crucial things in learning to deal with uncertainty is, first of all to accept that it's all around us. It always has been. We know almost nothing about the future. We can make lots of good guesses and bad guesses, but actually what we know of the future is almost nothing. And I think we've been kind of persuaded by technology companies and by some kind of bad mental models that, oh, yes, the future really is predictable. It isn't, because it hasn't happened yet. And what happened in the past isn't necessarily a predictor of the future. And that's because new knowledge changes what happens. And by definition, we don't know what that new knowledge will be. So I think helping adults and children alike understand uncertainty and not be afraid of it and to see it as opportunity is really crucial. I also think that this is something, and this may surprise some people that artists and scientists have in common. 

So scientists know that any scientific theory or any scientific information isn't absolute. It's the best we know so far. So we have a theory of gravity. It's really good. It means if I pick up my pen and then let go of it, it'll fall. It's a fantastic theory, but real scientists know there are conditions in which it doesn't work. And real scientists know it's perfectly feasible that one day somebody's going to come along with a better theory. So they define science as the best we understand so far. That doesn't mean anything goes at all. No, you want to use the best you have, but they also know that new information will come up that will change things, and that's actually how progress happens, which is adding to the sum of knowledge. So scientists are usually able to deal with uncertainty pretty well, because mentally they have a very good understanding that it's all around us. The other group of people who have an outstanding ability to cope with uncertainty are artists. Right. When I start to write a book, I don't know how exactly I'm going to write it I have an idea, but I've never written that book before. When I started uncharted, I had a chapter outline. I had a vague idea of what was going to go in each chapter. I'd done a ton of research, some of which was useful, much of which was not. But I did not know if I could write that book, and I did not know how I was going to write that book, and I did not know what that book was going to turn out to be. Now, for me, that's the exciting part of it, because I learn along the way. It's also the terrifying part of it, which is maybe this is going to be the book that's just too ambitious for me. Maybe I've overreached myself. 

But the only way to find out is to do it in the same way that painters don't know what the painting is going to be when they start. They're investing time, effort, materials. All of those things are precious, but they don't know what it's going to be, because if they did know what it was going to be, it wouldn't be interesting to make. So I think the arts are absolutely fundamental to developing in all of us a capacity to deal with uncertainty in a really creative way. And I think that the sort of background drum roll against the humanities and the arts in education and elsewhere, is nothing less than catastrophic. Because when you take those things out, and when you take out the uncertainty implicit in science, you're essentially saying to people, we know everything, and we just have to plan better, to do better work, to have better lives. And that is simply untrue. And anybody brought up that way will discover its limitations very fast, and then they'll have nothing. So I think uncertainty is a very fundamental concept at the center of education, without which we really can't cope.

Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it makes social capital so much more important. That idea of constant improvement instead of change, I think all of those tie back into that. That's a wonderful place to end this conversation. Margaret, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. 

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