Margaret Heffernan on how to navigate the future: An interview by Bob Morris

Margaret Heffernan produced programmes for the BBC for 13 years. She then moved to the US 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 twelve 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.

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 holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Bath and continues to write for the Financial Times and the Huffington Post.

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When and why did you decide to write Uncharted?

I decided to write the book in 2016. I kept being asked questions about the Brexit referendum in the UK, the Trump campaign in the US—as if I knew the outcome. But nobody, I thought, knows the future because it hasn’t happened yet! It struck me then that the way we think about the future is all wrong and that made me investigate the ways we have for thinking about the future, why they fail and what might work better.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

For me, the distinction between complicated and complex was fundamental, once I understood it. Once you see you inhabit a system where much is invisible and can’t be predicted (even though things sporadically repeat themselves) it seems to me that everything has to change. All the ways we’ve been brought up to think about ourselves, our personal futures and the future of organizations, has got to change radically.

Given the wide and deep impact of COVID-19, to what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned? Please explain.

Bear in mind, that I handed in the final MS in 2019 and, in the UK, the book came out in Feb 2020. I was correcting proofs for the US edition (which came out in Sept 2020) right up til the end of January 2020 so still there was no reason to change a word. I have just finished a Postscript for the UK paperback which comes out in Feb 2021 where I look back. But everything in the book is written pre-pandemic. I predicted nothing!

My crystal ball imploded in 2008. That said, pre-navigation, to what extent (if any) can the future be anticipated? What reasonably certain (or highly probable) assumptions can be made about it?

I think we can do some short term prediction. I can catch my train and have a rough idea what I’m doing for the next three months. I am also prepared for all of that to change. I build in robustness. I can also do super long term thinking: what do I aspire to achieve in the next decade. That is around principles and values but not detail. That, I think, is it.

Looking back, I can see that I’ve pretty much always lived and worked this way. The longest plan I ever had was a two-year plan when I was determined to get into Cambridge. But when I got there, it was completely different from what I’d expected, in good and bad ways. I went because I wanted to direct plays. I did direct plays—and discovered I didn’t like doing it and wasn’t very good at it. Oops. So I thought: OK, you’re at a great university, study and think with an intensity you might never have again. Use what you have. I did and I’m glad I did. But it wasn’t the plan. I could go on. But in general when young people ask me how they should plan their careers, I stick to principles: work with people you like on work you think is important. Live on what you earn. Keep your overheads low. Take risks. That’s it.

What are the defining characteristics of the mindset needed to take that approach?

I think you do need to accept that life is uncertain and much is way beyond your control. In that swirling universe, you need to develop a strong sense of who you are, what you believe in, and move to people and places that are at compatible with that. I’ve found that I am very comfortable with uncertainty, not because I know what will happen (I don’t, nobody does) but I have over time developed confidence that I’ll be able to figure it out. I think that’s the only value of confidence.

As is also true of your earlier works, the chapter titles in Uncharted are very appropriate. Please explain 
the key point in each of these. First, Chapter Three, “Flukes and Mutations”

This is a reference to the fact that evolution progresses through flukes and mutations; they are the drivers of change. And because they are flukes, they can’t be predicted – so we can’t know what unknown thing will change our direction.

Next, Chapter Four, “No Available Datasets.”

This is a quote from Stacey Chang , when he was arguing with architects about building a hospital without waiting rooms. The architects could NOT get their heads around the idea and wanted him to prove it could be done. But it is in the nature of innovation and of the future that if it really is new and it really is the future, there can be no data! You have to get used to making decisions without data. We have learned that, for sure, during the pandemic,

Also, Chapter Five, “Go Fast, Go Together”

If you want to do something that has legitimacy, you have to involve the people who will be affected by your decisions. This, to my mind, has been the huge problem with all the infamous Change and Transformation programs. They are imposed, they don’t emerge. That means they have to be sold to the workforce (ie crammed down their throats) and that’s why they fail. People are infinitely better at implementing change that they designed themselves.

Then Chapter Seven, “Cathedrals”

This is a quote from Stephen Hawkins who talked about Cathedral Projects – projects designed to last longer than a human lifetime. As it happens, I live near one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in Europe. It took 100s of years to build. There was no architect. Yet there it stands: gorgeous, meaningful, functional, a vital part of the community even though church attendance in the UK is low. Its meaning and function has evolved over time and it remains relevant. That is how to think long term.

Finally, Chapter Nine, “Who Wants to Live Forever?”

This is a lot less lofty – it is a lyric from the Queen song, sung by Freddie Mercury who died young. In the Introduction, you discuss two kinds of optimism. Which do you favor? Why?

There are two kinds of optimists. Explainers who know that bad news is neither forever nor everywhere. And Expectants who have a fighting spirit and can imagine improvement. I’m more of the second but a bit of both.

Several of your comments caught my eye. For example, “Knowing that history doesn’t repeat itself is what makes it useful.” (Page 43) Please explain.

If you study history for what is different NOW from the past, you often find the source of energy and strength. To the degree that you focus on what is the same, you won’t see that. Too much journalism hijacks history and uses it for analogies which over-emphasize similarities with the past (which may lead to pessimism or over-confidence) and under-weight differences, which is where all the possibility lies!

”Models fail because they’re reductive, subjective, ideological.” (75) So what?

Models, just like algorithms, are nests of entwined assumptions. But they have to leave things out—because otherwise they’d be as big as the reality they seek to describe. So what gets left out is a matter of opinion and beliefs. So models cannot be otherwise. So they will always be flawed. T~hat doesn’t mean they are useless, but it does mean that we have to be on our guard for ways in which they could fail and not imbue them with magical predictive powers


”Experiments are not pilots, with their intricately preconceived definitions of success and failure, and freighted with
power struggles. They’re designed go be open to whatever is found, good or bad.”

In your opinion, what is the single greatest contribution that experiments can make to charting and then navigating the future? (112)

I think they make innovation easier, less freighted with expectations, and faster. Example: a firm I work with wanted to help the UK’s National Health Service by providing coaching to NHS leaders for free during the pandemic. To do so required that they work pro bono, that they work much faster than usual and that they compare notes every two weeks or so. None of this is how the firm typically works but it was what the NHS needed. There was no reason to believe it would be or wouldn’t be valuable; it was just impossible to know. In the end, it turned out to be valuable to the NHS as an organization, to the individual clients in terms of their own stamina and well-being, and to the firm which discovered it has a whole new product offering but also a new way of working which created more solidarity within the organization. None of this was known ahead of time and none of it could be discovered just by thinking about the problem.

“Scenario planning changes the people who do it…Most participants treasure the experience…eventually.” (136) Please explain the significance of this assertion.

Most of us have a sense of the world (and the future) which derives from our own, quite narrow, experience of life. Scenario planning insists on two essentials: first, that you have to listen to the lived experience of others not like you; that changes your sense of the world, of what is possible and what is not. Second, seeing different possibilities both increases participants’ sense of urgency and responsibility. Once you’ve seen what the future might hold, you can’’t just sit back. But it’s not an easy or a comfortable process.

What is a “cathedral project” and why is it uniquely significance?

A cathedral project is a project which is expected to be important for the very very long term. So it isn’t about building companies that do well and sell out. It isn’t about short term innovation or gain. Cathedral projects have a fundamental mission in the world which is meaningful far beyond those involved in making them. In today’s rather miserable jargon, we’d say they have purpose. They are infused with faith about making the world better. But how they do that can change but what they exist for does not.

“Crises are always personal.” (221) What is the relevance of this statement to navigating the future?

We are living through a crisis called a pandemic. It’s huge, global and overwhelming. It’s also personal. I might die. I have friends who have died. I have other friends whose livelihoods have been destroyed. It is impossible to live through a crisis and for it not to make a personal impact. And chiefly, I think, that is what we really remember. Also, I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, people asking me what they should do, apart from the obvious. My recommendation was that they keep a journal. Because in a crisis, everyone changes. But they can’t see that happening to them. You see it only when looking back. So take notes.

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Uncharted will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career in business or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

I couldn’t possibly say. There’s a huge range in Uncharted and part of that is because it is designed to appeal to lots of different kinds of people at different moments in their lives. My kids, in their 20s, said they found it really helpful. Others in wildly different positions have said the same thing, tho they might be older and in completely different places in their lives.

It’s quite funny. Uncharted was nominated for two big Best Business Book prizes. But it isn’t really a business book. Just like Wilful Blindness isn’t and neither is A Bigger Prize. These are books about life—of which work is a big part but not a separate part. I’m deeply suspicious of book that imply you can separate work from life. If you can do that, I think it’s a bad idea, but I’m not really sure it is even possible.

To C-level executives in Fortune 500 companies? Please explain.

I think leaders of large companies are stuck in a status quo trap they all struggle to get out of. I say this in part because I mentor some. In general (in a space where generalizations are difficult) I think they are stuck with a 20th century model of management and leadership which was about predictability. It used to work. But it doesn’t work any more. The pandemic is not the problem, it is an emblem of unpredictability and of uncertainty. And as we head into economic crises, crises of inequality and unemployment and since we are already in a climate crisis, I think leaders have to learn how to deal in a world where forecast/plan/execute no longer delivers. 


To supervisors who wish to help their direct reports gain a much better understanding of how to chart their own future?

Definitely. But also supervisors who can and should be helping those around them to experiment, to take in wider views, to convene different kinds of expertise in order to see greater possibilities. We have seen how, in the pandemic, necessity has been the mother of invention—but why must we rely on crises for that? We all – from the CEO to the janitor—have to get better at invention just because we can, because it is central to being human.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

As above!!

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

“Why is change so hard? ”

Change is hard because we are creatures of habit and also because we are mostly risk averse and are afraid of change. Not everyone—some love it—but most. But that’s obvious. I think the less obvious answer is that we’ve been led to imagine that you can have change without sacrifice. I don’t see how this is possible. If we are going to deal with the climate crisis, for example, we are going to have to give up eating so much meat, having so many pets, driving gasoline cars everywhere, flying wherever we want whenever we want. It’s childish to think we can stay as we are and have everything change at the same time! Equally, I think for years we’ve talked about gender and racial equality as though we let in these new entrants but nothing else changes. Culture has to change for new entrants to be useful, to feel included and responsible enough to make the huge contributions of which they’re fully capable.

And it means that, in a board of what used to be 12 white men, there will now be fewer seats for white men. Nobody likes to acknowledge this – we love (and I’m guilty of having perpetrated) the myth that this is a tide that raises all boats. I think that, when the change is bedded in, what we get is becoming better, fairer, more informed and more creative. But the path to getting there involves sacrifice. No sacrifice, no change.

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Margaret cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Her website link

Her TED Talks link

Her Amazon link


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