The “paradox of organizational culture”: it makes a big difference although comprised of small actions, habits, and choices.
I have read and reviewed all of Margaret Heffernan’s previously published books and most of her articles in various prominent journals as well as interviewed her. In my opinion, she is among the most valuable business thinkers, presenting valuable insights with rigor and eloquence. Her latest book, Beyond Measure, offers an excellent case in point. It is a follow-up to her eponymous TED Talk and I urge everyone to watch that video at the TED website as soon as they can.
Here’s her thesis: “Institutional cultures are non-linear systems. Small changes — listening, asking questions, sharing information — alter beyond measure the ideas, insights, and connections those systems are capable of producing. Each of these small things generates responses that influence the system itself. And everyone, from CEO to the janitor, makes an impact.”
Personal digression. Years ago, I was retained by a Fortune 50 company to help design an online “suggestion box” that would enable employees throughout the enterprise to suggest ways to reduce waste, improve a process. etc. A recent hire in the mail department at its headquarters made this suggestion: except when absolutely necessary, send all mail for next-business-day delivery only on Fridays. Did that “small change” have a “big impact”? Within the first few months, it began to save about $80,000 a month.
This is what Peter Sims affirms in his book, Little Bets, when recommending an experimental approach that involves a lot of little bets and certain creative methods to identify possibilities and build up to great outcomes eventually, after frequent failures. Constant experimentation (“learn by doing”) is fundamental to this approach, as indicated, as are a playful, improvisational, and humorous environment; immersion in unfamiliar situations, localities, circumstances, etc.; definition of specific questions to answer, specific problems to solve, specific objectives to achieve, etc.; flexibility amidst ambiguity and uncertainty in combination with a willingness to accept reorientation; and, as indicated, constant iteration (reiteration?) to test, evaluate, refine, test again, etc. Those who are curious wish to understand what works. Experimental innovators have an insatiable curiosity to know what works (or doesn’t), why it works (or doesn’t), and how it can be improved.
These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Heffernan’s coverage:
o Introduction (Pages 1-5)
o Difference Makes a Difference (9-13)
o Crucial Differences (16-18)
o Making the Most of Mistakes (19-22)
o Teaching Empathy (25-26)
o Time Compounds Social Capital (31-34)
o Power Listening (35-38)
o Hours Up/Productivity Down (42-44)
o Quiet Time Together (46-50)
o Crunch — Then Detox (51-56)
o Curiosity Smashes Silos (57-59)
o Divergent Thinking (63-70)
o Making Opposites Work (70-72)
o The Elevating Impact of High Expectation s (75-76)
o Leaders Believe (81-82)
o The Best Idea Leads (84-85)
o The Problem with Power (87-90)
o Epilogue (96-97)
I agree with Margaret Heffernan: “The aim of a human life is not one that is free of human flaws and friction but one that enriches, and is enriched by, others. Similarly, the3 goal of a great career or organization isn’t the elimination of error but a relation ship with the world that is renewable because it grows as it gives. And for that you need all the small things that life has to offer: silence and noise, action and reflection, focus and exploration, time, respect, errors, inventions, humility, and pride in the human capacity to think again…So my one more simple thing is to ask: What small change made a big impact on your work? On your culture? Let your mind wander. You’ll find it. Then share it.
One final point: I congratulate those involved with TED Books for this volume’s superior design and production values, notably MGMT Design and the Simon & Schuster team. Bravo!
Robert Morris and has been published with his permission. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.