small things that have huge impact

#37 – Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes by Margaret Heffernan

A TED book which means it’s thin. A Margaret Heffernan book which means it’s important (Wilful Blindness is instructional for life).  A book on small things that have huge impact which might mean the same as big things that have huge impact.

Because small things are not easy things.

3 things to think about

1. What difference will it make to our organisation if we improve our listening, asking questions and sharing of information?

2. One for us and one for our organisation – “At Torres wine vineyard… The Black Book of Torres is the book of mistakes. Whenever a mistake is made, the person who made it writes it up. One entry came from the chief financial officer, acknowledging a $200,000 error he had made in a currency hedge. But the value of the book goes beyond writing: every new recruit reads it on joining the company. So this simple book both shares the learning from the errors—so they aren’t repeated—and sends a powerful message: everyone makes mistakes. Power and status confer no infallibility; mistakes are the way stations of progress.”

3. “A Denver resort, seeking to motivate and inspire its customer service team, came up with a simple mechanism. After you’ve done what was required, ask yourself: What one more thing could I do to make these people happy? In one case, lost walkers were pointed in the right direction—but then also given some snacks and water to keep them going. In another case, a phone operator cataloged all the easy workarounds to recurrent problems. In every instance, employees found that they could always identify one more thing that would make a difference—and that thing was what they enjoyed most, because it was their idea.”

I will never forget going to Hai Di Lao (click link to read more), a hotpot restaurant in China. The service is phenomenal. They make waiting more than tolerable by providing snacks, drinks, manicures, shoe polish etc. Every customer touchpoint has been considered and provided for including spectacle cleaning wipes and covers for personal belongings. It’s as if they asked the same question above: What one more thing could I do to make these people happy?


“We measure everything at work except what counts.”

Why do we measure – “Numbers are comforting… and create an illusion of control.”

Organisational culture is made up of small actions, habits, and choices.

“culture is elusive, hard to manage, impossible to command.”

How we listen, ask questions and share information determines our culture.

not from the book. “Just Culture is a culture in which front-line operators and others are not punished for actions, omissions or decisions taken by them which are commensurate with their experience and training, but where gross negligence, wilful violations and destructive acts are not tolerated.”

“The purpose of a just culture is to surface all the information, intelligence, and insight required to make the best decisions.”

What kind of culture do we want?

  • Everyone has the “the courage to think and speak for oneself and on behalf of others.”
  • Every single person counts”, not just superstars.

Passivity – Many CEOs “are frustrated by the lack of energy and ingenuity they see in their workforce.”

Organisational silence – People are fearful to speak up for fear of looking foolish and the desire to avoid conflict.

Passivity + silence hurt organisations.

“Great teams need windows on the world, but biases mean that we mostly get mirrors.”

Better questions, better decisions.

“Questions are the heart and soul of constructive conflict. They open up the exploration, bring in new information, and reframe debate.”

“The president of Pixar, Ed Catmull, vividly describes the ferocious Braintrust meetings that accompany the development of every movie. Debates are intense; arguments are heated; what makes them great at problem solving is candor. No one wastes time positioning remarks. Instead, everyone offers their best suggestions to a director who—crucially—is under no obligation to accept any of them.”

“If you can’t talk about mistakes, you learn nothing. If anything, it convinces you that you’re perfect—which is dangerous. If you can own up to mistakes, then others can, too. And that’s how you learn. It’s how whole organizations learn.”

In one study, 88% of companies say they would address mistakes only in private with only 4% willing to do so openly. But it is openness that “makes systems safer and smarter”.

Social capital: “the trust, knowledge, reciprocity, and shared norms that create quality of life and make a group resilient.”

A MIT study found better teams have 3 key qualities:

  • “First, they gave one another roughly equal time to talk.”
  • Increased social sensitivity: “these individuals were more tuned in to one another, to subtle shifts in mood and demeanor.”
  • More women

An idea to train empathy: switch roles when proposing ideas, e.g. “The chief technology officer would argue the case for marketing, the head of sales spoke on behalf of operations, customer care explained technology’s needs.”

Some teams take coffee break at the same time to build social capital.

Alex Pentland’s team at MIT found that “what happened between people—not just at meetings but in casual conversations, brief exchanges in the hallway, at the water cooler—made a measurable difference in productivity.”

“The National Transportation Safety Board found that 73 percent of incidents occurred on the first day a team worked together, and 44 percent on the first flight. By contrast, flight teams that stayed together for years performed better than all the rest.”

“The late Richard Hackman’s research into teams showed that superior teams tended to be very stable; they work together for a long time, getting to know and trust one another.”

“Even in research and development, where new talent is needed to refresh ideas and knowledge, Hackman concluded that the introduction of just one person, every three or four years, would suffice.”

“The more senior you are, the more important listening becomes. Once a leader speaks, most people stop listening to one another and start positioning themselves. But when the leader doesn’t speak, then, just like a great choir, people have to listen to and respond to one another.”

Sleep produces more insights – “When we are asleep, our minds are busy, consolidating, organizing, and reviewing recent memories and experiences—and that generates insights.”

“Time is on our side when we know how to spend it.”

“The consultant Tony Schwartz once persuaded an accounting firm to let just one group work differently, alternating focused, uninterrupted periods of ninety minutes with short breaks. That group stood out from their peers as getting more done in less time, being able to leave earlier and experiencing less stress during tax season.”

“At Ocean Spray, there are times in the day and the week when no one can call a meeting. That simple rule provides freedom in scheduling work or external commitments.”

“To be truly productive, therefore, means to take time for quiet, focused work but also to find time to let your mind wander.”

“Whether outdoors or on a treadmill, walking has been shown to improve the generation of new, useful ideas.”

“theory of mind: our capacity to appreciate the difference in other peoples’ minds.”

“Most of the world’s largest companies rank people, hoping to co-opt their competitive instincts and drive them to higher levels of performance. In reality, the system disenfranchises the majority of the workforce and sends out a costly message: you are not a leader. With Pygmalion in mind, you might call this the Galatea effect—taking living human talent and reducing it to stone.”

Everyone is a designer – “The biggest misconception is this belief that the reason Apple products turn out to be designed better, and have a better user experience, or are sexier, or whatever . . . is that they have the best design team in the world,” according to former Apple designer Mark Kawano. “But everyone there is thinking about user experience and design, not just the designers. And that’s what makes everything about the product so much better . . . much more than any individual designer or design team. The reason that structure works isn’t because of a top-down mandate. It’s an all-around mandate. Everyone cares.”

Mark Zuckerberg inspired me to start an annual personal project – read a non-fiction book every week and write about it. 

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