Navigating the Future—Faculty Spotlight

Published January 6, 2022
How can we plan for the future in a world that is complex, unpredictable,  and daunted with uncertainty?

Margaret Heffernan, in her timely and enlightening release, Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, dives into the human addiction for prediction, craving for certainty, and how we have the capacity to create the future we desire.

At The Global Leadership Summit: Special Edition, February 24th, 2022, we are eager to invite you to explore how to forge ahead to navigate the future with author, CEO, and entrepreneur, Margaret Heffernan. She has led a rich and diverse career as a director, writer and producer for the BBC and A&E. She developed interactive multimedia products with Peter Lynch, Tom Peters, Standard & Poors and The Learning Company. Margaret then joined CMGI where she ran, bought and sold leading internet businesses, serving as chief executive officer for InfoMation, ZineZone and iCAST. She teaches at the School of Management at the University of Bath and has been invited to speak at business schools worldwide. Margaret has published six books, and her TED Talks have over 12 million views.

Take a moment to engage in an excerpt from Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, for an example of the tools Heffernan will expand upon at The Global Leadership: Special Edition ’22.  

 

We Have Moved from a  Complicated  World  to a  Complex  One.  

The two aren’t the same—and complexity isn’t just complicated on steroids. Complicated environments are linear, follow rules, and are predictable; like an assembly line, they can be planned, managed, repeated, and controlled. They’re maximized by routine and efficiency. But the advent of globalization, coupled with pervasive communications, has made much of life complex: nonlinear and fluid, where very small effects may produce disproportionate impacts.

 

Chapter Four—No Available Datasets

Growing up on her father’s small Devon farm, Rebecca Hosking didn’t feel that she lacked for companions. Surrounded by wildlife who were both pets and company, she always felt most at home in nature. Studying photography gave her an excuse to get outside and wander. Now in her early forties, Hosking’s weathered face shows she has spent most of her life outdoors; it’s when she pulls the thick, curly blond hair away from her face that you notice she’s beautiful. But chiefly the impression that sticks is one of tenacity, a rugged determination not to be daunted by stiff challenges. In 1999, after completing a degree in photography, her teachers had encouraged her to apply for a coveted BBC scholarship, working in the Natural History Unit. No woman had won it before, but Hosking did. Two years later, she was a producer, traveling the world, shooting the documentaries that made the NHU so famous. Not all directors wanted to travel the world with a woman, and many were skeptical that Hosking could cope with heavy film gear and tripods. She proved them wrong. But, after six or seven years working on David Attenborough films, she was severely disillusioned by what she had seen in the wild.

The value of experiments is that they disrupt apathy, acknowledge ambiguity, and give people hope.

“In all the projects,” Hosking recalled, “we’d go past horrific ecological devastation. Huge monoculture farms. Dead zones where you can’t film. Climate change was seen as an annoyance, getting in the way of film shoots and messing up our schedules! A great subject staring us in the face—seen as an annoyance. I just got more and more cross.”

Hosking knew she was in a privileged position: she had resources (her expertise, access to audience); she had real passion for the environment, and a crying need for something to be said about its spoliation. The BBC agreed to commission her film about Hawaii, but she had no intention of showcasing the glorious wildlife; the program was about the ruination of the ocean caused by plastic.

“I sold it as beautiful people saving animals,” Hosking said. “But I didn’t say what they were saving them from. The series producer knew. He kept telling me: you have to tell the series editor that every marine animal seen on screen would be shown choked in plastic, ingesting plastic…”

Hosking’s hypothesis was that if audiences could see the horrors she had witnessed, they would rise up and demand change. But, when the film aired, nothing happened. Her hypothesis wasn’t proved. What she learned was that people watch TV and carry on as usual.

She went home, severely jaded. Her achievements and her friendships now seemed superficial, pointless. Alone in her small flat in Modbury, Hosking wondered:  Why hadn’t people responded? Perhaps they didn’t know where to start. What if she started something small and just tried to persuade her village to give up plastic bags?

…it was better to try something than to do nothing.

Friendly with the local deli owner, Hosking floated the idea: the first supporter. The art gallery owner thought it was a fantastic idea, too. The butcher agreed but asked what he was supposed to do about the meat juice. If she could find a decent substitute, he’d go along with her. Six weeks later, all of the local independent shops supported her plan. She called a public meeting to confront the big retailers, challenging them to support the campaign, and they did, promising to give every household—1,500 people—a cloth bag. The night before the secret launch, each household got their bag through the mailbox, with a note saying: “From Monday, we are not going to be using any plastic bags in the village.” If her film couldn’t change the world, Hosking hoped that she could at least change her little village.

She was wrong again. The world’s media got wind of the story and arrived en masse on her doorstep. The Guardian picked up on it first, then other newspapers. Then she said, it went stupid: CNN, Sky, Russia Today, NBC, Chinese TV crews, Canadian, French. Chinese officials presented Hosking with a bag that said, “Our Province Follows Modbury!” They had banned bags overnight. Hosking asked them how many people lived in their province. Thirty-two million!

In 2007, the year of Hosking’s experiment, Botswana, Ethiopia, Belgium, Rwanda, and China all either banned plastic bags, imposed a levy, or introduced laws requiring bags to be biodegradable. In China, bag usage fell by 60 to 80 percent. In Ireland, it fell 90 percent. In the United States, bans were local, by state or city. In 2019, New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a law banning single-use plastic bags and, around the world, the trend has continued. In January 2020, the Chinese government went even further, banning all single-use plastic products, including bags, straws, and utensils. Why did Hosking’s movie experiment fail when her second, small scale one was so successful? Why did a 2017 film on plastic pollution in the ocean make an impact when hers had not? She will never know. But it is characteristic of complex systems that small actions can make a disproportionate impact. You just don’t know, won’t know, until you try. And try again.

You could say that experiments are how we learn everything.

As individuals, organizations, and corporations confront enormous problems—inequality, disease, injustice, technological disruption, environmental degradation, climate change—it’s become fashionable to seek to define theories of change. What makes people and institutions abandon old bad habits and acquire new, better ones? Some argue that pressure eventually produces a tipping point, while others maintain it’s all about the cogency or timing of the message. When large corporations and institutions require strategic change, investors and participants demand a theory of change that promises to contain or define their risk. But the test of a good theory is that it can predict—and what we know about complex systems is that, while aspects of them may repeat, they are inherently unpredictable. So, theories of change in highly dynamic systems might purport to offer certainty, where it often proves most illusory. The value of experiments is that they disrupt apathy, acknowledge ambiguity, and give people hope.

Hosking’s experience reveals useful principles. Distraught by what she’d seen around the world, she didn’t despair or whine or assume that somewhere someone else would take action. She refused to be passive; it was better to try something than to do nothing. When her first experiment failed, she didn’t give up. Nor did she try to predict or game the outcome, so she made no promises; her experiment was genuinely open-ended.

What she brought to the problem were three assets: need, resources, and passion. She knew that there was a demonstrable need for a change in consumer behavior. She had resources: her knowledge, her media experience, and her relationships with the villagers who trusted her. In this she was smarter than many, who often assume that only professional colleagues are sources of power. And she had passion for the subject—essential if she was going to have the resilience and energy needed to keep going and to bring the project to life. If you think of those three assets—need, resources, passion—as Venn diagram, she took action where they overlapped.

You could say that experiments are how we learn everything. We try to stand up, fall over, recalibrate, and next time find we can teeter for a second or two. Keep at it and mastery emerges. Misbehave and feedback provides fresh evidence that throwing food is a poor means of securing affection. An iterative process of approximation is how we learn. That life, work, love, and politics, are complex makes experiments more valuable, not less. They allow us to see the systems we inhabit. Since we can’t see the whole of a complex system at once, trial and error are how we probe them to find out what works. The key quality of experiments is that we don’t know what will happen. So, they both spring from uncertainty and ambiguity and are a creative response to both.

From UNCHARTED: How to Navigate the Future by Margaret Heffernan. Copyright Ó 2020 by Margaret Heffernan. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Learn more from Margaret Heffernan on February 24, 2022, at The Global Leadership Summit: Special Edition.

Margaret will be joined by a dynamic lineup including Craig Groeschel, Dan Pink, Linda Cliatt-Wayman, and Hubert Joly.

Learn more and get tickets at GlobalLeadership.org/SpecialEdition.

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