3 Questions for Margaret Heffernan, CEO and author of Willful Blindness

Margaret Heffernan

In Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril (2011), entrepreneur, CEO, and author Margaret Heffernan examines how individuals and organizations become blind to obvious risks, sufferings, and failures. A Financial Times 2011 Business Book of the Year finalistWillful Blindness ultimately reminds us that ignoring what’s right in front of us sometimes comes at a terrible cost.

I recently asked Margaret about the public reception to her book, its lessons for employers, and her plans for 2012:

1. What is your overall reaction to reviewer and reader responses to Willful Blindness?

The response has been fascinating. Many readers feel liberated by its message, insofar as the book explains many of their experiences which, before, they found baffling. It seems to make a lot of sense of otherwise nonsensical behaviors. I’ve met a lot of whistleblowers through the book and their endorsement has been heartening.

What I think has been more challenging is that, in the many public talks I’ve given, most people seem to imagine that they, uniquely, aren’t blind. They are, if you like, blind to their own biases and to institutional obstructions that ensure that we all suffer from willful blindness some of the time. To read the book and imagine you are the exception is, I think, wrong – which is why I included a section on my own blindness. I don’t think anyone is exempt, alas.

2. What are the most valuable lessons of Willful Blindness for employers concerning their workers?

There is always far more knowledge inside an organization than employers know how to capture. That is the central lesson. If leaders understood the causes of their own blindness better, and recognized that this constitutes a significant business risk, then they have the capacity to get a great deal more information, insight and understanding from their workforce. It’s an interesting fact that investment in people delivers a far higher return than investment in technology – and yet technology is somehow more appealing.

The workforce represents a vastly under-utilized asset in most companies. When there are problems in a business, it is almost never the case that they are unknown, unknowable or invisible. Someone somewhere knows about it. The leadership challenge is to create an environment in which this information can and will find its way to the top.

3. What are your main projects and priorities for 2012?

My main priority is to find a way to become more productive since I now have so much work to do it’s hard not to panic!

I’m working on a new book. I’m finishing a new play commissioned by the BBC. I’m blogging for CBSMoneywatch, for Inc.com and for various other outlets around the world. I’m teaching and speaking at conferences around the world. It’s a lot!

And I probably need to get better at saying ‘no’. But I feel quite strongly that I’m lucky to have the opportunities I have and it would be stupid not to appreciate them. I also find that much of my best material comes from people who email me because of my writing and that creates a virtuous circle where I have more to say.

I’m very struck that so many writers make it very hard to contact them. I understand why but this seems to me to create the conditions in which one is writing, essentially, in a bubble. I try very hard not to do that. I’m very committed to the idea that, when I talk to people (or write for them), I am learning too.

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Go here to access Margaret Heffernan’s website. And go here to access my short review of Willful Blindness.

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Starting in 2012, “3 Questions for…” is a regular feature presenting short interviews with notable individuals whose work and activities overlap with major themes of this blog.

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