Trying a New Approach to Collaboration, Large and Small

When I think of horrific meeting experiences, my mind rewinds to a hands-on seminar I led years ago for Apple. The objective was to introduce teachers to Apple’s desktop. It was a group presentation with auditorium-style seating and keyboards for participants to use in conjunction with the talk. About 10 minutes into my sch-peel, a tiny grandmotherly-looking woman stood up and said to the group: “We’re not idiots. Why do we have to listen to this person, let’s just do this!”  And away they went, clicking happily along in utter chaos. That was point my boss walked in. Needless to say it was an interesting debrief.

meeting

The 20th century approach to informing, educating and convincing a group of people. 

I thought about that woman this week during a Liberating Structures workshop led by Keith McCandless (who wrote the book) and Anna Jackson who spearheads an LS meetup group here in Austin. Is there a better way to inform, collaborate, teach and motivate a group of people?  I’m a newbie but I’d say the tools they introduced me to are the best I’ve seen so far. I can see how they could work in all kinds of organizations. The idea is to tweak the feng shui of group interactions – topic, space, pacing, participation – and deploy a set of tools that better focus and distribute the conversation among the people who matter.

liberated meeting

Are there more possibilities here? Bigger group, more leaders. See the 1-2-4-All tool.  

You can read more on the Liberating Structures website. It lists all the tools and gives you a menu of when/how to apply them.

Since I haven’t applied it yet, the results are theoretical. But hey, if it works for The World Bank and The Gates Foundation, I’m all in. I’m intrigued about seeing how the tools would work cross-culturally, in situations where some of the participants are remote (there’s a technology conversation) and when selling one’s ideas to executives.

More to come.  I only wish I, like Merlin, could live backwards: Just think how I could have helped and gained from that woman who was so frustrated and anxious to learn so long ago.  I hope she’s running a company somewhere.

 

 

Stuck in a Habit: Is Predictive Adaptation Possible?

Editor’s Note:  I was thinking about this post in terms of a session on Predictive Adaptation I sat in on last month. Dr. Liz Alexander moderated. She is considering a book on the subject which boils down to:

Can we stay tuned in enough to adapt prior to a change in our marketplace?

As the shelf life of companies grows shorter and shorter, the ability to adapt is on the short list of survival strategies. How do we cultivate it? One way is to not be stuck in our habits.

I’m a tea drinker, I have a teapot with an infuser, numerous immersion devices and a cabinet stuffed full of teas – black, herbal, medicinal, green. When I drank coffee, it was the same scenario, with different props. My freezer was full of Peets’ (now, alas, part of Starbucks) Major Dickinson blend and my cabinet, coffee brewers — drip, stovetop, percolator, French and Italian press – you get the drift.

Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing.

Habits can lock us into rigid ways of thinking and doing. The solution?  Try something new.

Two weeks ago I ran out of tea. I reordered in a such a panic that I used an old address.  My tea — a special blend I’d grown to depend on to get me out of the door in the morning — never arrived. The tea blender refused to fix the delivery snafu.  So I didn’t reorder.

That’s how one habit (getting in a snit when things didn’t go my way) forced me to re-evaluate another (my tea drinking compulsions).  I was forced to rethink that morning ritual. Now I’m brewing tea bags (Choice) I buy at the grocery store.  I don’t enjoy my tea nearly as much, but it’s saving me time. Unintended consequence:  I’m actually getting to work on time.

Habits can be helpful, but they can also lock us into position. I’ve noticed that whatever it is hoard is a habit – wine, ice cream, tea, coffee, graham crackers. In the same way, my response to the tea blender was a habit — he chided me about my carelessness, I felt like a bad child, and I didn’t want anything more to do with him.  Other habits I’ve flagged since my tea disruption:

  • Who I greet in the morning
  • Where I walk the dog
  • What I do with my spare time
  • Who I telephone to spend time with
  • How I think about my abilities (and shortcomings)
  • The books I read
  • How I view people with ideas that are different from mine

A search on “habits” took my to former Googler Matt Cutts’ Ted Talk, “Try Something New for 30 Days.” (Editorial note:  Why is the guys can look like slobs and the women have to look like they’re ready for the Academy Awards?)  Regardless, I’ve resolved, for at least 30 days (when Choice tea bags will probably already be my new habit), not to reorder tea.  We’ll see what happens.

Who knows what I’ll discover.

 

 

 

Can We Adapt Before Change Happens?

If a lifelong attraction to fortune tellers has taught me anything, it’s that the future never turns out according to plan. And a planner I’ve always been.

So I was fascinated when Dr. Liz Alexander posed the question:  Can we adapt predictively?  That is, can we read trends wisely enough to see what will be required for a future that’s still around the corner?

Liz, who among other things, guides thought leaders through the process of articulating and packaging their theories, pointed out that if:

  • The past is a predictor of the future
  • Corporate shelf life continues to drop (it’s now in the low double digits)
  • We remain flexible professionally, accepting that each of us will have multiple professions during our working life
  • Then, if we pay attention to mega trends, we can determine where our professional strengths can best be applied

So much depends on seeing opportunity when it presents itself.  I pulled myself away from watching the Democratic National Convention to write this. Al Franken, former comedian, current U.S. senator spoke, and I was struck by Gail Collins’ oped piece pointing out that Hillary Clinton is running for president at a time when most women are thinking about gardening, grandchildren and the occasional cruise.

These are remarkable people, obviously, but they are also tips of an iceberg of change, reminding us to stay flexible, pay attention and don’t be afraid of opportunity.  Maybe that in itself is predictive adaptation.

 

 

 

 

Leadership During a Crisis: Dallas Co. Sheriff Lupe Valdez on Police Shootings

A very, very sad week for our country: four shootings in cities across the country, with five police officers shot in Dallas during a peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protest. Sitting here in the middle of Texas, I am heartsick for my state and for Dallas, which for some reason has been a magnet for tragedy. Despite a vacuum (at best) of leadership among our state’s elected officials, I take my hat off to Lupe Valdez, sheriff of Dallas County.

Dallas Co. Sheriff Lupe Valdez, "I know at some point I'll cry," Courtesy of the Dallas Morning News

Sheriff Lupe Valdez, “At some point I’m going to cry. But right now I’m too busy.” Photo courtesy of the Dallas Morning News

Valdez, who is in her third term at the helm of a racially diverse county and the state’s second-largest city, spoke to NPR yesterday, responding openly and honestly to questions that would have made many others defensive (take note, Mrs. Clinton). She explaining why she was “not comfortable” with law enforcement officers’ wearing riot gear during citizen protests: “You put people in riot gear, you’re saying we’re expecting you to misbehave, so we’re ready for you….”

She closed with one of the most human “official” statements I’ve heard:

“I think – what I hear a lot and what I feel is – or what I’ve said a lot today – at some point, I’m going to cry. But right now I’m too busy. Right now we need to take care of things. But I think that’s important for all of us. At some point, it’s going to hit us. But right now we’re just, as I said, we’re good at crisis. We react. We do what needs to be done.”

Thank you, Sheriff Valdez.

What Does An American Look Like?

My friend Prithvi was sworn in this week as a U.S. citizen. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation about the experience:     Swearing in

The ceremony was beautiful.One thousand one hundred sixty-six (1,166!) people from 97 countries participated. After waiting outside for about 30 minutes, we took the oath and a lovely band played the “Star-Spangled Banner.”  It was an emotional moment.

Several judges spoke about the United States being a nation of immigrants and as new citizens, our enriching that heritage. They encouraged us to tell our stories and enrich America with our culture.

A woman judge told a story about a Bangladeshi immigrant who became a citizen.  When he was shot after 9-11, he sued to stop his assailant’s execution. We were strongly encouraged to vote:  There were voter registration desks in every corner of the building.

The head of the immigration service there, whose grandfather was from Mexico, asked us what an American looks like.  Then he said, “This!” and gestured at us.  Each country was called out, and the people of that country were asked to stand. Then he said, “Mexico,” and everyone remaining stood up.  There was roar from the stadium.

Prithvi is from Mangalore, India. She is brilliant and well-rounded: a technical manager at Apple, the mother of a three year old, the wife of an equally brilliant engineer.  She also runs a non profit for Indian children. I can’t imagine anyone’s taking issue with her becoming a citizen.

I asked her how it felt to be an American.

I don’t known what that means. I have felt American for a while.  And Indian.  That will not go away.

Prithvi’s experience was a reminder of what we’re about — and it’s not those plastic American flags realtors insist on sticking in everyone’s yard, nor the mattress sales, nor the grocery store aisles clogged with overflowing baskets.

At a time when our world’s politics are compared with — heaven forbid –“Game of Thrones,”  let’s try our best to rise to the occasion, to return some of what we’ve been given — to read, listen critically, write our elected officials and vote. Let’s try our best to make things better.

 

Brexit Threatens Growth in Austin and the U.K.

Editor’s Note:  This article was published by the World Affairs Council of Austin on June 21.

Fred Schmidt is unequivocal about the June 23 Brexit vote, the British referendum on whether the country should stay or leave the European Union, and its impact on Austin.

“Linking EU and U.S. economies with TTIP [the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership] is where the future lies.  “It would be mind boggling for Britain to leave the EU and its massively successful economies of a union with linkages of economies and people.”

The start-up city takes London

Schmidt, an ebullient entrepreneur and director of international affairs for the Capitol Factory, was just awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth for his role in developing the economic partnership between Austin and Hackney. The relationship, which was formalized as a sister and science city partnership in 2014, serves as a springboard a partnership that’s expanding across London’s other 32 boroughs and into Europe. In fact, on June 23 Schmidt will be in London with United Kingdom Trade & Investment department, as part of the Austin delegation to London Technology Week, the annual festival of all things innovative.

It should be quite a week for Austin’s role as “the start-up city.”  London Tech Advocates, a private-sector led coalition of tech and community movers and shakers plans to announce its launching an Austin chapter to cultivate the sister and science city bond Schmidt and the Austin- Hackney team started, focusing on creative tech, gaming, education, life sciences and biomedical, food tech, fashion tech, mobility innovations, zero waste, and advanced manufacturing. The announcement will be made during London Tech Week.

A global protectionist environment

Since Britain would be the first country to leave the EU, no one know exactly the ramifications of an exit would be. Brexit polls showing the “Leavers” neck-to-neck with those who want to remain in the EU.  But the general tenor is that a Brexit would not be good news for Austin companies with offices in Britain, or for British-based businesses here.

“Only the economists and other realists are planning,” said Schmidt. “But the implications (of Brexit) are clear.”  That is, London would no longer be the default gateway to the European Union.

Then there is the headquarters question. “When considering opening a European headquarters, Britain is an automatic choice because of the shared language and access to the Eurozone. If Brexit happens, companies will need to calculate whether to open their headquarters on the continent or open a UK branch managed from either the continent, Ireland, or the U.S,” said Robert Bou, president of Austin-based Ashlar-Vellum which designs computer-aided design and 3D modeling software.

Those of you who were lucky enough to attend the Texas-EU summit in May heard Caroline Vicini, deputy head of delegation of the European Union to the United States, talk frankly about the challenges TTIP faces, one two major trade deals opposed by both presidential clients. Speaking of straight talk, protectionist policies stunt growth no regardless of size. (Slight tangent: For an intriguing view from the perspective of the Fortune 10, read General Electric Chairman Jeff Immelt’s graduation speech to NYU’s Stern School of Business.)

Though not everyone thinks Brexit would hinder London’s growth. Nowhere else can hope to compete with London’s status as “the talent magnet for Europe. No other place comes close,” Richard Florida, an urban theorist and director of cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute in Toronto, told Bloomberg Technology in February of this year.  Along with New York, “it is one of two economic centers of the world,” a reality that wouldn’t be significantly altered outside the EU.”

Life will move on  

Schmidt is sanguine. On June 23, “we’ll be cryin’ tears of joy or sadness in some pub that night,” said Schmidt, “And then life will just move on.”

 

 

A Marketer’s Lessons from Brexit

Ever failed to gain support for a smart, admirable product or campaign that seemed like a no-brainer?  Something like conserving water?  Attracting technical talent? Remote storage (until it became the “cloud”)?  Saving for retirement?

So it was with Brexit, a seeming no-brainer turned on its head by lackluster messaging, a failure to get voters to the polls and a strong political environment.

1. “Want to Make Sure No One Listens? Deliver a Boring Message

“One of the things that went terribly wrong with those who were campaigning for Remain was to find a passionate way to defend the European Union,” the English historian, commentator and Columbia University professor Simon Schama, told NPR when the vote to leave the European Union was announced.  “The point of the European Union was to be dull and boring rather than violent and aggressive and bellicose, which it have been for most of its history,”

A successful real estate saleswoman once told me that people buy by emotion, not reason. For Britons, the message of peace, protection and prosperity was drowned out a strong wave of  nationalism stoked by fears of uncontrolled immigration a remote central bureaucracy.   Emotion ruled.

2.  Apply the “what’s in it for me” (WIIFM) test

“A slogan and a message must be aspirational — either give people hope things will get better or that the bad stuff will stop — both, said Ruth Sherman, a political communications analyst, told The New York Times.  “I remember thinking when I first saw [one of Hillary Clinton’s taglines], ‘I’m with her’ — when I saw it, [I thought] ‘Really?’ It’s not my job to be with her. She should be with me.”

The message also has to be strong enough to move people to action. Although 75% of  British 18-29 year olds voted to remain in the EU, these voters did not turn out in sufficient numbers to make a difference in the final result.  And showing up, as Woody Allen reminds us, is 80% of success.

3.  Pay attention

Be it data, news reports or eating lunch with the troops, it’s important to keep you finger on pulse. The ‘Remain’ camp’s ‘Stronger Together’ slogan “failed to ‘personalize, individualize or humanize their campaign,” Frank Luntz, an expert on political messaging told The New York Times.  “The problem with the concept of ‘together’ is that it promotes groupthink…We are in an age of individual action, not collective responsibility.”

4.  We are doing business in an increasingly protectionist environment.

I hope by now you’ve read GE Chairman Jeff Immelt’s graduation speech to NYU’s Stern School of Business.)  Every company is on its own, he warns as “globalization is being attacked as never before. In the face of a protectionist global environment, companies must navigate the world on their own,” he said. “We must level the playing field, without government engagement.”

5.  Yes, it can happen.  Have a plan

The quote I remember most from my first interview with Fred Schmidt of the Capitol Factory was, “Only the economists and realists are planning.”  Everyone thought it was a done deal: Britain would stay in the EU.  Today, United States’ seventh largest trading partner is paralyzed, rocked by what could never happen.

Pay special attention, technology companies.  As Immelt reminds us, the Internet has connected us, but it has not created jobs. Many are questioning the value of globalization and business interests as “elite” and subject to distrust. Stay informed and participate. Organizations like the American Electronics Assoc., the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, many of which cluster around universities, educate elected officials and lobby business interests.  Be active, there is strength in common interest.