Forging Ahead Together: Margaret Heffernan on Group Success



The road to success seems obvious — plenty of hard work and a goal to rise to the top. It may be intuitive, but is it accurate? Margaret Heffernan, an international businessperson, believes that true success may require thinking outside the box for answers, something she discusses in her TED Talks lectures. She has worked in the United States as the serving CEO of iCast Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and Information Corporation, and in the United Kingdom, she worked for 13 years as a radio and television producer for the BBC, before running her own businesses.

Heffernan currently resides in the city of Bath, England. She has written five books, one of which, “Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes,” was commissioned by TED. She set out to write about businesses after coming to realize that there were no good books on corporate culture. Heffernan’s work consists of challenging the status quo in a search for better productivity — and she has a great encyclopedic knowledge of historic instances when unconventional approaches solved real problems, and also remembers when “willful blindness” resulted in a detrimental outcome to employers and employees, when cultures and businesses closed rank to protect each other rather than address a problem.

Collaboration — particularly in businesses — means different things to different people, and is often met with reluctance. Some might see it as a great idea — putting two heads together to be all that you can be — while others see it as the inevitability for disaster — as one will likely take all the credit while the other doesn’t put in an ounce of work. Rather than an opportunity to share ideas for the best-possible outcome on a given project, collaboration can quickly become a rivalry, and even those who find successful collaborations may end up resenting each other. What’s the answer?

According to Heffernan, you should be prepared to welcome dissent. Managers are not always right — nor are you — but the criticisms of others can help you be your best, allowing you to rebuild and withstand harsh criticism and airtight arguments. At the same time, you come to learn and embrace your mistakes, something that allows you to become fully human. Don’t be afraid to say “No.”

“Having run many businesses I’ve always been obsessed with how you create an environment in which people do their best work. Since the financial crisis [of 2008], we seem to be creating the conditions in which people do their worst work. I think the banking industry in general has a poor track record of working people in such a way that they remain clearheaded. We tend to obsess over hierarchies where often people who do the best do so at the expense of others. We’ll always have groups that do better than others — but what is it that makes some groups more successful than their peers?”

Heffernan points out that a study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “asked the same question — and they found the groups that are more successful have three things in common: they scored higher on a Reading the Mind in the Eyes [empathy test], they gave roughly equal time to each other — so that no one voice dominated, but neither were there any passengers — and thirdly, the more successful groups had more women in them. Was this because women typically score higher on the test or because they bring in a more diverse perspective?

“We don’t really know but what’s key to the group success is their social connectedness. In groups where people are attuned and highly sensitive to each other, ideas flow freely. People grow with each other — they don’t get stuck down dead ends. The culture of helpfulness is central to success.”

In her own experience, Heffernan found that less productivity occurs when individuals simply go to work: “When I ran my first software business in Boston, I hired lots of fantastically brilliant engineers — fantastic CVs, incredible track records, but we got stuck and I didn’t know why. Finally, I realized that they were all focused on their own work, didn’t even realize who they were sitting next to. It was only when we spent time — invested time — getting to know each other, that we got real momentum.

“There’s a company in Maine called Idexx Laboratories, a high-tech biopharma company that has grown vegetable gardens all over their campus in which the employees work — because they want people to get to know people they don’t automatically work with. You might say have these people gone mad? But they haven’t. They’ve caught on to the fact that when you hit difficulty, and you always will hit difficulty when doing work that matters, and need help, you know whom to ask for help. The airline industry has created something called ‘just culture,’ in which all problems have to be reported because it is clear how they will impact everybody. A leaking pipe has to be reported if you see it whether you’re the CEO or the janitor.”

With hierarchy, it seems we only create borders between each other — where those in charge shift blame to the people beneath them, and, in turn, those at the bottom of the ladder feel less compelled to do their best work. Groups in the same MIT study who had members with the highest IQs, or the highest aggregate IQs, didn’t necessarily have the most success, by comparison. “Companies don’t have ideas,” Heffernan reminds us. “Only people do. I’ve come to realize that many people are more creative than they know — and much more creative than their bosses know.”

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s print edition.

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