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The human skills we need in an unpredictable world | Margaret Heffernan

Recently, the leadership team
of an American supermarket chain decided that their business
needed to get a lot more efficient. So they embraced their digital
transformation with zeal. Out went the teams
supervising meat, veg, bakery, and in came an algorithmic task allocator. Now, instead of people working together, each employee went, clocked in,
got assigned a task, did it, came back for more. This was scientific
management on steroids, standardizing and allocating work. It was super efficient. Well, not quite, because the task allocator didn’t know when a customer was going
to drop a box of eggs, couldn’t predict when some crazy kid
was going to knock over a display, or when the local high school decided that everybody needed
to bring in coconuts the next day. (Laughter) Efficiency works really well when you can predict
exactly what you’re going to need. But when the anomalous
or unexpected comes along — kids, customers, coconuts — well, then efficiency
is no longer your friend. This has become a really crucial issue, this ability to deal with the unexpected, because the unexpected
is becoming the norm. It’s why experts and forecasters
are reluctant to predict anything more than 400 days out. Why? Because over the last 20 or 30 years, much of the world has gone
from being complicated to being complex — which means that yes, there are patterns, but they don’t repeat
themselves regularly. It means that very small changes
can make a disproportionate impact. And it means that expertise
won’t always suffice, because the system
just keeps changing too fast. So what that means is that there’s a huge amount in the world that kind of defies forecasting now. It’s why the Bank of England will say
yes, there will be another crash, but we don’t know why or when. We know that climate change is real, but we can’t predict
where forest fires will break out, and we don’t know which factories
are going to flood. It’s why companies are blindsided when plastic straws
and bags and bottled water go from staples to rejects overnight, and baffled when a change in social mores turns stars into pariahs
and colleagues into outcasts: ineradicable uncertainty. In an environment that defies
so much forecasting, efficiency won’t just not help us, it specifically undermines and erodes
our capacity to adapt and respond. So if efficiency is no longer
our guiding principle, how should we address the future? What kind of thinking
is really going to help us? What sort of talents
must we be sure to defend? I think that, where in the past we used to
think a lot about just in time management, now we have to start thinking
about just in case, preparing for events
that are generally certain but specifically remain ambiguous. One example of this is the Coalition
for Epidemic Preparedness, CEPI. We know there will be
more epidemics in future, but we don’t know where or when or what. So we can’t plan. But we can prepare. So CEPI’s developing multiple vaccines
for multiple diseases, knowing that they can’t predict
which vaccines are going to work or which diseases will break out. So some of those vaccines
will never be used. That’s inefficient. But it’s robust, because it provides more options, and it means that we don’t depend
on a single technological solution. Epidemic responsiveness
also depends hugely on people who know and trust each other. But those relationships
take time to develop, time that is always in short supply
when an epidemic breaks out. So CEPI is developing relationships,
friendships, alliances now knowing that some of those
may never be used. That’s inefficient,
a waste of time, perhaps, but it’s robust. You can see robust thinking
in financial services, too. In the past, banks used to hold
much less capital than they’re required to today, because holding so little capital,
being too efficient with it, is what made the banks
so fragile in the first place. Now, holding more capital
looks and is inefficient. But it’s robust, because it protects
the financial system against surprises. Countries that are really serious
about climate change know that they have to adopt
multiple solutions, multiple forms of renewable energy, not just one. The countries that are most advanced
have been working for years now, changing their water and food supply
and healthcare systems, because they recognize that by the time
they have certain prediction, that information may very well
come too late. You can take the same approach
to trade wars, and many countries do. Instead of depending on a single
huge trading partner, they try to be everybody’s friends, because they know they can’t predict which markets might
suddenly become unstable. It’s time-consuming and expensive,
negotiating all these deals, but it’s robust because it makes their whole economy
better defended against shocks. It’s particularly a strategy
adopted by small countries that know they’ll never have
the market muscle to call the shots, so it’s just better to have
too many friends. But if you’re stuck
in one of these organizations that’s still kind of captured
by the efficiency myth, how do you start to change it? Try some experiments. In the Netherlands, home care nursing used to be run
pretty much like the supermarket: standardized and prescribed work to the minute: nine minutes on Monday,
seven minutes on Wednesday, eight minutes on Friday. The nurses hated it. So one of them, Jos de Blok, proposed an experiment. Since every patient is different, and we don’t quite know
exactly what they’ll need, why don’t we just leave it
to the nurses to decide? Sound reckless? (Laughter) (Applause) In his experiment, Jos found
the patients got better in half the time, and costs fell by 30 percent. When I asked Jos what had surprised him
about his experiment, he just kind of laughed and he said, “Well, I had no idea it could be so easy to find such a huge improvement, because this isn’t the kind of thing
you can know or predict sitting at a desk
or staring at a computer screen.” So now this form of nursing
has proliferated across the Netherlands and around the world. But in every new country
it still starts with experiments, because each place is slightly
and unpredictably different. Of course, not all experiments work. Jos tried a similar approach
to the fire service and found it didn’t work because
the service is just too centralized. Failed experiments look inefficient, but they’re often the only way
you can figure out how the real world works. So now he’s trying teachers. Experiments like that require creativity and not a little bravery. In England — I was about to say in the UK,
but in England — (Laughter) (Applause) In England, the leading rugby team,
or one of the leading rugby teams, is Saracens. The manager and the coach there realized
that all the physical training they do and the data-driven
conditioning that they do has become generic; really, all the teams
do exactly the same thing. So they risked an experiment. They took the whole team away,
even in match season, on ski trips and to look at social projects in Chicago. This was expensive, it was time-consuming, and it could be a little risky putting a whole bunch of rugby players
on a ski slope, right? (Laughter) But what they found was that
the players came back with renewed bonds
of loyalty and solidarity. And now when they’re on the pitch
under incredible pressure, they manifest what the manager
calls “poise” — an unflinching, unwavering dedication to each other. Their opponents are in awe of this, but still too in thrall
to efficiency to try it. At a London tech company, Verve, the CEO measures just about
everything that moves, but she couldn’t find anything
that made any difference to the company’s productivity. So she devised an experiment
that she calls “Love Week”: a whole week where each employee
has to look for really clever, helpful, imaginative things that a counterpart does, call it out and celebrate it. It takes a huge amount of time and effort; lots of people would call it distracting. But it really energizes the business and makes the whole company
more productive. Preparedness, coalition-building, imagination, experiments, bravery — in an unpredictable age, these are tremendous sources
of resilience and strength. They aren’t efficient, but they give us limitless capacity for adaptation, variation and invention. And the less we know about the future, the more we’re going to need
these tremendous sources of human, messy, unpredictable skills. But in our growing
dependence on technology, we’re asset-stripping those skills. Every time we use technology to nudge us through a decision or a choice or to interpret how somebody’s feeling or to guide us through a conversation, we outsource to a machine
what we could, can do ourselves, and it’s an expensive trade-off. The more we let machines think for us, the less we can think for ourselves. The more — (Applause) The more time doctors spend
staring at digital medical records, the less time they spend
looking at their patients. The more we use parenting apps, the less we know our kids. The more time we spend with people that
we’re predicted and programmed to like, the less we can connect with people
who are different from ourselves. And the less compassion we need,
the less compassion we have. What all of these
technologies attempt to do is to force-fit a standardized model
of a predictable reality onto a world that is
infinitely surprising. What gets left out? Anything that can’t be measured — which is just about
everything that counts. (Applause) Our growing dependence on technology risks us becoming less skilled, more vulnerable to the deep and growing complexity of the real world. Now, as I was thinking about
the extremes of stress and turbulence that we know we will have to confront, I went and I talked to
a number of chief executives whose own businesses had gone
through existential crises, when they teetered
on the brink of collapse. These were frank,
gut-wrenching conversations. Many men wept just remembering. So I asked them: “What kept you going through this?” And they all had exactly the same answer. “It wasn’t data or technology,” they said. “It was my friends and my colleagues who kept me going.” One added, “It was pretty much
the opposite of the gig economy.” But then I went and I talked to a group
of young, rising executives, and I asked them, “Who are your friends at work?” And they just looked blank. “There’s no time.” “They’re too busy.” “It’s not efficient.” Who, I wondered, is going to give them imagination and stamina and bravery when the storms come? Anyone who tries to tell you
that they know the future is just trying to own it, a spurious kind of manifest destiny. The harder, deeper truth is that the future is uncharted, that we can’t map it till we get there. But that’s OK, because we have so much imagination — if we use it. We have deep talents
of inventiveness and exploration — if we apply them. We are brave enough to invent things
we’ve never seen before. Lose those skills, and we are adrift. But hone and develop them, we can make any future we choose. Thank you. (Applause)

97 Replies to “The human skills we need in an unpredictable world | Margaret Heffernan”

  • You know, what really struck me is that the speaker does not even read the script but still is very fluent in what she tries to deliver. That will help the editors spend less time on making videos.

  • Wel literally follwing the saying.
    "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
    Meaning We'll handle it when we get there. IF it happens. Extremely risking because you may be reducing the chances of depreciations.

  • You can see this in all things in life, anything based on religion or culture which simplifies things, tends to push out the unique… not only at work places.

  • Cant we just go back to living simply ? I would LOVE to tend the land , build a wooden house and have a horse and cart etc , no tvs no sidetracking . Just good old fresh air and nature , family by my side me by their side . I don't WANT to leave myself volneruble as far as hospitals but i do think they should be to help the sick . Its hard to balance whats for the best but im seeing a world that kills rapes loots and destroys itself for no reason . We need to be humbled . The sky really is going to roll up . Its almost black hole time we need to back off .

  • Uncertainty is most certain. People need to be able to react and act in uncerain times. Tech and tech efficiency have people at a certainty disadvantage and in that we lose our creative ability to efficiently react on the fly.

  • Much much better than other TED talks. Best of all, she's not an angry feminist millennial snowflake wearing gaudy thick framed glasses!

  • Subtitles in Hungarian and Persian, and do not put subtitles in Spanish, the second most spoken language in the world😒
    Subtítulos en húngaro y persa, y no ponen subtítulos en español, el segundo idioma mas hablado del mundo😒

  • Algorithms are nudging us to efficiency, deficiency and hedonism.
    All this arguments are perfectly true for personalization algorithms in social media who are in fact threatening us to close all of us in "filter bubbles" where we have less and less serendipitous encounters, but only what the algorithms predict we will like. Therefore, we receive less diversity and become less resilience to uncertainty and the unexpected.
    We need (to claim) more serendipity!

  • She presents "efficiency" as a bogeyman, repeating anti-technology and Luddite tropes a century and a half old.

    Technology isn't the problem, but she contrasts it as the two in combat, Technology ("efficiency") vs Real People ("human skills").

    Technology and efficiency are boons. They make us stronger, not weaker. They empower, not disarm.

    Yes, we need "human skills". Technology, through "efficiency", has empowered more folks to develop "human skills", to communicate world-wide, to do things which would've been seen as Magic a few generations ago.

    She's not just wrong: she's actively directing folks away from the tools we have to improve their lives.

  • Says the person who hasn't tried technology. The whole point is to integrate with it and one day communicate with whole mental movies at the speed of thought. If that isn't the ultimate way of connection with other human beings Idk what is.
    Those who get into tech a little too much are the same people who stay alone and do other hobbies. Those of us who use it immensely and still have a social life and do what needs to be done can do it better than the person who doesn't use tech as much as us. This video was just a waste of time.

  • generalizations to the meaningless
    extremes .. even her ‘for examples’ are obtuse , inscrutable.. why ?
    why are we skirting around specifics as if they were some unmentionably obscene sexual act ?
    Hey Ive got an idea; stop being stoopid and incognizant ..

    20% will survive the present and coming great (self) extinction –
    who do you think that will be ?$

  • This is the moral thrust of Terminator/The Matrix isn't it? Efficiency costs us our humanity? Or rather, hubris in efficiency costs us our humanity?

  • But….but….I was told that artificial intelligence was the end all be all. It will be our friend!!! Was I lied to?😕🙅

  • So in short, admit that complex systems (humans, most of all) can't be meaningfully modelled and predicted for any and all purposes (yet), and therefore shouldn't be over simplified to mere numbers pushed around by data wonks. The fact that this seemingly mundane 'common sense' sounds 'risky' and 'radical' in today's increasingly data-driven, algorithmically optimised world is what makes this talk intriguing and powerful. I appreciate the speaker's effort to invite us to rethink the balance between 'efficiency' and 'robustness', the 'complicated' and the 'complex' – and maybe on a more human level, the balance between wealth and well being, results and purposes.

  • "Anyone who tells you that they know the future, is just trying to own it, a spurious kind of manifest destiny."

    This is a tremendous TED Talk with some excellent wisdom being imparted. But that whole deal about climate change: perhaps the quote she gives toward the tail-end of this talk needs to be heeded more by smart people like her as they listen to the policy advocates/doomsayers on the climate subject.

  • Friendships and alliances? You are correct the time was wasted So are the lives. You could put together a committee and you could meet down south.You know in that country that starts and ends with the same 1st leter of the alphabet. But if you ever get that to project off the ground for that pandemic that we all knows , well some of us do… Put something in that anti toxins anti-vaccine might as well counter that disease also. I'm impressed that you actually said that about the banks there is no reserve because there is no money… there is only debt credit and bookkeeping
    entries. They know exactly when they're going to have a financial crisis… because they trigge it. Reserved for what and when on the bank for money there isn't any it's worthless paper that's what the Treasury says and our fake courts have agreed. The Treasury is nothing but a front for IMF figure that one out. Figure out why we have two treasuries one in Washington DC in one Puerto Rico? Don't believe me? look it up I'm not even here everybody in give you the number in the lady's name who is the real Treasury secretary. The man Washington DC is the governor of the IMF. Any used to be called the the foreclosure king or something like that of California. He doesn't like that getting out. When he owned a bank (lots of banks actually) he took a lot of people's house. But he went straight He a new man now he sold all those nasty banks. I don't remember how many kazillion dollars he got. Thats all in the past. Unless of course you were one of the families kicked out of your house you haven't gotten over it yet I bet?

  • How do they rate the latest Hurricane/controlled weather event they caused in Houston TX a few years back? Instead of backing it up and getting more water and sending it back ashore several times, do they think just slamming on the brakes and stopping it over somewhere they have decided they want to destroy works much better? Certainly looks like it did.

  • We can't stop "technology" it is out of the box. We just can learn how to use it. This will cause more and more people who can't follow. Conflicts are in the pipeline…. destruction too. Then it will start all over from new …..,

  • Thank you for explaining that it is now becoming more about just in case management. Thank you for emphazising the significance of what we might not be able to measure. Thank you for analysing that those who are talking about the future are usually trying to own it. And thank you for reminding us of our opportunity to create any future we want. I am going to keep all that on my mind when changing the world.

  • The erosion of our traditional core moral values of society is the biggest and only problem thats 100% in our grasp to correct.
    climates change that natural and its not within our power. all these secondary and 100th problem on the list of troubles only are destractions from what we can fix.
    Thos tupe of Mass Alarmism us just nativity and self inflicted wounds.

  • The future is awesome and it involves people working together and in concert with machines. The rugby team story was very interesting. Teamwork and emotion is very important. Thanks for the video

  • Technology is not the enemy and is going to be the only means to facilitate the needs and an expanding population efficiently and fairly. The biggest problem we face as a species is that we have grown complacent and no longer differentiate need from want. We can not sustain growth without technology increasing the efficiency of how we can use the limited resources of this planet. The intangibles of the human mind will always remain secondary to surviving.

  • so true yet so misleading. yes, the less we think the lesser we become. but that's not direct cause of ever expanding technology. that's direct cause of greed and money.

  • This Margaret woman is an excellent speaker! Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into this talk. I have much to think about in the days to come!

  • Kind went over my head but I enjoyed the talk… had to look at the comments and description for some explanation. Is that what she warns us about? Not being able to think for ourselves? I don't know for sure.

  • this is worst rubbish ever – you can program in anything and AI will be ahead of people any day – it will free us up to be creative – AI will make us

  • Good observations delivered in a sound speech. These insights are more than just valuable to humans in today's world; in many instances they're recognized as basic "laws of nature."
    IE: Efficiency (at it's peak) is akin to over-specialization & nature doesn't favor it (consider it "robust") or the hybrid(s) it produces.

  • it's so refreshing to see such a profound, insightful look at human skills in an age that tempts o eliminate them. she has said more than enough, and i hope more and more people see this truth, thank you !

  • As a school teacher, I would add: The more time teachers are forced to enter, and stare at, assessments and standardised test results, the less time they have to know, connect with and help their students. The reliance on standardised tests and data is killing our education system and robbing our children of creativity. It’s sad, so sad …

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