Beyond Measure: The big impact of small changes

by Margaret Heffernan [public library]

Summarized by Katharina Weghmann


Margaret Heffernan’s new book “Beyond Measure: The big impact of small changes,” is an original manifesto for business leaders. Creating strong organizational cultures does not require multi-million dollar programs; instead, small actions by each employee- from Custodian to CEO- matter more and have the biggest impact.

Heffernan shows that throughout history, it has been systemic barriers, such as failure to speak up, hoarding information etc., that become the cause for disasters. Therefore, to truly create a culture where information is shared and collaboration is facilitated means empowering everyone within an organization to have- and use- their voice.

While Heffernan emphasizes that strong culture is the “secret sauce” to a successful organization, culture is also a fluid property that makes it both a blessing and a curse. The ability to be influenced by “everything and everyone” renders culture beyond measure or control. Hence, we can only measure cultural change programs and not overall culture (yet). However, it is also beneficial in that a non-linear system like culture can be influenced by small changes like better listening, asking more questions and greater sharing of information. 

Below, we summarize the chapters in “Beyond Measure” and provide context for how the ideas in each chapter can influence ethical systems in organizations.

Chapter 1: Creative Conflict

In the first chapter, Heffernan explains how we tend to tone down our “actual” personalities at work in an effort to blend in. Moreover, much like the high school cafeteria, we prefer surrounding ourselves with people that confirm our biases instead of focusing on real diversity. According to Heffernan, this tendency is due to the avoidance of conflict that stems from the fear of our own emotions, as well as those of others. 

To counteract these propensities, Heffernan advocates that organizations deliberately create a “just culture,” where constructive conflict, progressive ideas and divergent thinking are fully embraced. The following is a selected list of simple, applicable examples:

  • Active listening without interrupting or thinking about a response, especially managers and leaders 
  • Ask exploratory and challenging questions, i.e. “who needs to benefit from our decision and how?”; “what are all the reasons that this is a right/wrong decision?”; “Why is this important?”; “What would we do if we had infinite/ no resources?”
  • Intentionally introduce questions that identify the opposite of the desired result, i.e.“what might we see if we were wrong”
  • Become comfortable with uncertainty during heated debates
  • Use well-intended mistakes as opportunity for collaborative learning, not shaming
  • Diversify your team: Hire “windows to the world” not “mirrors” or “echoes” of yourself

As an example of an organization with a growth mindset, Heffernan presents Torres Wine Vineyard, who introduced a physical journal as a way to leverage lessons from past mistakes. Those who make a mistake – regardless of position in the company – write an entry and explain what happened, what they have learned, and the lessons they pass on. Every new recruit gets to read the book, which is a powerful way to communicate that everyone makes mistakes and that the organization knows how to learn from these missteps and continue moving forward. 

Chapter 2: Social Capital 

Growing social capital is the key to building resilient teams and a just culture within organizations. Heffernan suggest creating an environment of trust, knowledge, reciprocity, and shared norms through team activities such as collective restoration, power listening, equal time to speak up, and multiple perspective taking through reversed roles increases the level of productivity, empathy, and social connectedness. The aviation industry is mentioned as a powerful example for the advantages of strong social capital: The National Transportation Safety Board found out that long standing teams have much less incidents than newly formed teams.

Chapter 3: Thinking is Physical
Chapter 3 emphasizes the importance of respecting and understanding the physical demands of great work- a significant focus given that most studies focus on the mental traits needed for success. High-order thinking utilizes a lot of our brain’s resources. Therefore, properly taking care of ourselves / employees includes both physical and mental considerations to maintain productivity and capacity for critical thinking. Heffernan explains “tired and overwhelmed we want problems to go away – we don’t care how – because we lack the capacity to analyze or solve them” (p. 42), which ties in nicely with our work at Ethical Systems and the behavioral science around ethical fading.

Practical action steps to stay physically and mentally healthy:

  • “Mono-task” to increase knowledge and quality of work
  • Sleep sufficiently to be capable of high-order thinking and create insights
  • Fixed alone time where no meetings are allowed and employees only focus on their own work
  • Take a walk outside 
  • Read different genres of books outside your comfort / profession
  • Take weekends as weekends

Two examples of companies that apply these concepts:

  • Daimler employees are encouraged to delete emails while on leave and explicitly communicating this in their message of absence
  • The Huffington Post urges their employees to not check emails outside of work

Chapter 4: Smashing Barriers

As part of chapter 4, Heffernan introduces “silos” and “convergent thinking” as major inhibitors for innovation and vibrant organizational cultures. She encourages organizations to facilitate curiosity, mental freedom and divergent thinking by making a conscious effort to bring real outsiders and unconstrained thinkers into discussions- even if they don’t have particular experience in the subject matter. In other words, outsiders can provide major insights. Another tactic is to remove oneself from staid environments. Going out into a new setting can help expand potential, creative ideas and can influence positive, productive thinking. 

Chapter 5: Leaders Everywhere

In her final chapter, Heffernan highlights the opportunities that lie in the entire workforce as opposed to just a selected few high potentials. Grounded in the Pygmalion effect, Heffernan argues that it is not surprising that those with special attention and treatment outperform those without this affirmation and encouragement. She argues that the danger of this type of succession planning not only excludes true diversity from the entire organization but, more destructively, sends a strong message that the organization being unable or unwilling to recognize potential in all members of the team.

Heffernan cites tech-giant Microsoft as a company who recognized this as a harmful issue, abandoning rankings in 2013 and creating the ethos of “One Microsoft” to make everyone in the organization valued and engaged. Another example presented is W. Edward Deming’s idea for manufacturing businesses to distribute power and responsibility to many by implementing checklists and eliminating annual evaluations. This method has been adopted in aviation and hospitals, contributing to an “all-in” mentality that acknowledges employees, regardless of hierarchical rank, as responsible for organizational success.

More so, Heffernan notes that it isn’t only grand-scale initiatives that result in big change- little action steps can also leverage the diversity of all employees to move an organization forward. These include:

  • Better distribution of power
  • Designing teams based on expertise and not hierarchy
  • Empowering employees to solve problems alone
  • Providing continual support
  • Promoting a whole person approach to work. 

Finally, Heffernan proposes Hackathons, where a group of people come together and collaborate intensely on a challenge or idea, as an effective way to create insights and solutions. Not only does this type of activity leverage diversity, build trust, and reduces rivalry but also increases social capital of the organization. 


“Beyond Measure: The big impact of small changes” is chock full of applicable, low-cost strategies to affect positive change in a wealth of organizations and environments. When organizations function as ethical systems, they are better equipped and empowered to form mutually beneficial frameworks of trust and strong dynamics with employees. Only then, does the whole transcend the sum of its parts- as together, both employees and companies work to benefit one another while staying focused on, and always moving towards to, the horizon.