Are We Learning Anything from China?

China welcomed Tesla’s EV manufacturing innovation and used it to build an EV supply chain. Where is America investing?

Del Valle, Texas, has made a bid for Tesla’s $1 billion electric truck Gigafactory, waiving some $46 million in property taxes over 10 years, with the county kicking in an additional $14 million.

Can you help us get an HEB?

Question from a Del Valle resident to Tesla representatives

The thing about economic development is that, in Texas at least, communities bid with the property taxes that pay for public health and kids’ educations. Del Valle, a stone’s throw from Austin and its Bergstrom International Airport, is chronically underserved. It has neither a permanent medical clinic nor a hospital. At a recent community meeting, a school board official’s question to Tesla representatives was, “Can you help us get an HEB?,” HEB being the the state’s flagship grocery store.

Proposed land for the Tesla Gigafactory in Del Valle, Texas. Courtesy of Michael Minasi/KUT
Innovation, riding the crest of Chinese investment

Any relationship is a risk. Not too long ago Tesla, in need of cash, made a similar gamble with China. Tesla agreed to pay $323 million a year in taxes, accept a $1.6 billion state loan, and source 30% of its parts locally (100% by the end 2020) to open a Gigafactory in Shanghai, the first foreign automobile company not required to share profits and technology with a local company.

The deal paid off handsomely. Tesla’s second-quarter earnings moved into the black, the stock’s value quadrupled to $1,790 per share, and Elon Musk’s personal wealth pushed past Warren Buffet’s.

But then Tesla fit neatly into the guiding principle of China’s “Made in China 2025” strategy: “innovation-driven, quality first, green development, structural optimization, and talent-based.” And since Tesla sources parts locally, China builds an in-country supply chain for manufacturing electric vehicles.

Looking for a mask? All roads lead to China

That’s EVs, now consider medical supplies. If you’re wondering why American doctors are re-using their masks, read Keith Bradsher’s reporting in The New York Times. In three years’ time, China has dominated the market in medical devices and supplies by investing heavily in companies that make those things and requiring hospitals to source locally. Bradsher, chief of the Times‘ Shanghai bureau, quotes an LA-based entrepreneur who decided to manufacture masks and hand sanitizer, only to discover the machines that make masks and the plastic bottles that dispense hand sanitizer are only made in China.

Investing in the future, locally

In the next 10 years, Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute estimate U.S. manufacturers will be short some 2 million skilled manufacturing workers. The starting salary for an entry level Del Valle Gigafactory worker with a high school diploma would be $36,000, about 55% of a living wage in Austin. But those jobs could conceivably propel workers into more skilled, advanced manufacturing roles with double the salary, in a market market hungry for those skills.

A model of a Tesla Cybertruck model. American innovation has depended on private investment and state and local economic development initiatives.

To fill the pipeline, local Austin-based manufacturers and the Army Future Command are collaborating with the Austin Community College to build an advanced manufacturing incubator that would offer hands-on experience and apprenticeships. As an EV manufacturer, Tesla could play a major role in mentoring the community in those very sectors that matter so much to the Chinese government: “innovation-driven, quality first, green development, structural optimization, talent-based” manufacturing.

Some signs of investment at the federal level

These are important but local initiatives. The larger question is whether we as a country are learning anything from China’s passion for investing in the technologies that will shape the future — advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, 5G, semiconductors.

Take semiconductors, technology that beats at the heart of all things digital. The U.S. semiconductor supply chain is complex and global. Fabrication and assembly are mostly off shored. A bipartisan bill proposed this month would offer matching grants to chip manufacturers willing to build domestic fabs, a line item of some 20 billion for a state-of-the-art facility. Two of the bill’s sponsors are incumbent Texas’ politicians, both ranking members in their respective chambers and both up for re-election this year. In the Senate, John Cornyn (R-TX) is working with Mark Warner (D-VA), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee; in the House, Michael McCaul (R-TX) is working with Doris Matsui (D-CA). China meanwhile, seeing the writing on the wall, is investing huge sums in building domestic semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. The jury is out on the feasiblity of such an initiative but then again, China is a country with a history of moving mountains.

Texas and Austin, of course, were once the site of the semiconductor consortium SEMATECH at a time when Japan threatened American dominance in that seminal industry. In the end, the state withdrew funding, SEMATECH moved north and is no more. So much for long-term vision.

In this mercurial world, it pays to pay attention, particularly to our own hubris. Texas has always been a destination for risk-takers. Hopefully we’ll take the right risks, and Del Valle will finally get its HEB.

The Pandemic, Jobs and Human Dignity

Magical thinking gets us through what seems unendurable — grief, pandemics, subjugation, airplane flights. But now is not the time for it. We need to be sharp and practical to build the future we want for our ourselves and our country.

When the shelter-in-place-order hit, lacking medical skills, I pitched in to help with the collateral damage — an avalanche of unemployment applications. The experience has given me a catbird’s seat on the future of the job market here in Texas, home of the Texas Miracle, and it is not a rosy picture.

In Texas, jobless claims top 2.3 million

I’ve been without work more than once, and I can assure you it is no fun. Take away the job, the income, the camaraderie (even when it drives you nuts) and what’s left? Those of us lucky enough to have an education, skillset and professional network will probably be okay. Otherwise, we’re in trouble.

I’ve sorted applications from oil workers in south and west Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico; substitute teachers, restaurant and fast food workers, millwrights, puppeteers, musicians, pipeline consultants and business process engineers, cosmetologists, travel agents, dentists and their hygienists, retailers, financial planners and anesthesiologists. Their names have the ring of Africa, China, Vietnam, Japan, the Middle East, Mexico, Latin America, rural Texas, the Ukraine and Poland.

“I work for pennies, not hours”

Early on, I opened an application with a handwritten note. Written in block letters by a deck hand on a shrimp boat, it said,”I work for pennies, not hours.” There was no self-pity, just the facts from a man with four kids and a third-grade education. A laborer from Donna, Texas, was out of work because he unloads onions from Mexico. Take away the trucks, and there is no job. The pandemic anticipates his future. As autonomous driving and robotic technology develops there will be no need for him.

Consider a 30-year old former Lyft driver with a wife and a four-year old son. When we met in April, he was taking three classes towards a career in cyber security without really understanding what working in the field would entail. He worked 10-hour days, six days a week while taking three classes, found he couldn’t pay his rent, became discouraged and dropped out of school.

Accessible, hands-on approaches with a global outlook

Disasters crack open change, and the pandemic may very well re-shape education to address reality. Instead of competing to get into a high-cost university to realize her dream to become a veterinarian, my friend Cherie’s daughter enrolled at Blinn College where after a couple of years, she’ll be able to transfer seamlessly into Texas A&M University and enroll in one of the best veterinarian training programs in the country.

Austin Community College will soon have four incubators where students get hands-on experience in their future careers. Bioscience, gives students access to a wet lab, which until recently was hard to find in Central Texas. The Fashion incubator features a huge 3D printer for designers and makers, and Entrepreneurship jump starts budding small businesses, something we’ll need in coming months.

A fourth, advanced manufacturing, will train students to use the sophisticated design equipment and processes that produce semiconductors for the factory and consumer of the future, chips that will take advantage of 5G and the Internet of Things. Graduates will be qualified to fill well-paying, high-demand openings at local employers Samsung, Advanced Micro and AMD.

Widening the lens to see the world

Even more remarkable may be an award-winning project at Del Valle High School, a chronically underserved community in the shadow of the Austin Bergstrom Airport.

Using Zoom and a partnership with the World Affairs Council of Austin, the Global Scholars Diploma program connects students with policy experts around the world to explore racism, immigration, climate change, global infections — issues that will shape their future. At left, these young women welcomed me when I visited to watch a regularly-scheduled moot court session with University of Texas law students.

Del Valle and Mike Cunningham are not taking a traditional approach to education. Working on a shoestring budget and leveraging local resources, the program teaches its students to think. It encourages debate, tests opinions, builds confidence and the patience to listen to other views. It nurtures participation, an understanding that the world is bigger than our own backyard, and a sense of a human responsibility that transcends the day-to-day.

Nurturing human dignity

Among Yuval Harari’s many provocative writings is a statement that humans have evolved too quickly to develop the dignity shown by the large predators of the past, who both ruled and served.

Needless to say, we’re not doing a very good job on the dignity front. We murder one another in the name of law enforcement. We brutalize the wildlife that shares the planet with us in the name of “sport.” We deport sick young immigrants who have contracted Covid-19 while in federal detention, transmitting the virus to their home countries.

Dignity is a big concept on which everything we call civilization turns. Our sense of human dignity determines our self respect, which in turn determines how we treat one another, the planet we rely on, and the beings we share it with. It’s difficult if not impossible to maintain our dignity if we lack the training or education to get a job that supports our children, if we’re too sick or obese to endure a full day’s work, or if other people look down on us because we can’t communicate effectively.

Education will not address all of our problems. But it is part of the baseline. Our world is trending in a direction that reflects more of the East and less of the West that defined the last century. If we are going to change direction, this is a moment of full of possibility. Just recognizing the opportunity and working towards a better future would be a fine thing. Because if we don’t do it, who will?

If We Know So Much, Why Don’t We Do Something?

An old book of Texas history, pulled from storage during the Covid-19 shutdown, reminds us of the optimism that marked the start of the 20th century, in stark contrast to our fears for the 21st.

A young activist writer living in Austin, Texas, is inspired by a charismatic politician. He writes a successful novel, secures a good job close to the halls of power and passionately supports liberal causes. A global crisis breaks out. He volunteers to help, is exposed to an untreatable virus, and dies at the age of 33.

The writer is Sinclair Moreland; the year, 1918. The virus was the so-called Spanish Flu. I pulled his book, The Noblest Roman, a tale of idealism in the face of corporate greed and political corruption, from a box I stored a decade ago in preparation for — now?

Sinclair Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman as a testimony to “civic morality.”

When Moreland wrote The Noblest Roman, the world must have seemed full of possibilities. The Spindletop gusher of 1901 remade the oil industry in the image of Texas. Progressives took the reins of power and used a tax on oil production to create the state’s educational and transportation systems. They battled big business, reformed the prisons and passed laws to protect food safety and regulate lobbying. They created the Texas State Historical Society where Moreland became the archivist.

The corporate villain of the time was Ohio-based Standard Oil, the first company to master both vertical and horizontal integration and own its supply chain. Feared and disliked by competitors for its questionable business practices, Standard Oil built a loyal consumer base by keeping its practices low. The company’s CEO, John D. Rockefeller was the world’s richest man. Sound familiar?

The year after Moreland published The Noblest Roman, The Supreme Court split Standard Oil into 34 separate companies, one of which became Exxon-Mobil. The stage was set for what The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman calls “the next train coming down the tracks,” climate change.

So goes the arc of history. Last week, six new Guggenheim Fellows were announced. Among them is Jeff Goodell, who like Moreland, lives here in Austin. But while Moreland paints an ideal of political leadership, Goodell’s award-winning The Water Will Come mourns its absence in the face of rapidly-rising sea levels, and the inevitable associated destruction and mass migration.

“Sea-level rise is like aging. You can’t stop it. You can only do better or worse, ” Goodell quotes an expert in The Water Will Come.

And while Moreland’s subject was bounded by Oklahoma, Louisiana and New Mexico, Goodell’s is global, differentiated only by economic disparity and whether there is too much or not enough water.

“Nature is going to win. Nobody wins with water. Think about the Grand Canyon.”

Jeff Goodell

In 1917, the year before his death in the flu pandemic, Moreland wrote a second book, The Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, dedicated to the women of Texas for whom “social caste has no place” and who maintain a “vital interest in … clean streets, better factory conditions, child and animal protection, higher moral standards, public health, social justice and decent government.” With that in mind, I pass on the brilliant Arundhati Roy’s thoughts for our preset time:

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.

Arundhati Roy, writing in The Financial Times

A Question of Community

There’s a continuum (and a conundrum) between the social distancing mandated by the coronavirus pandemic and the vitality of our communities. Ancient Athens and a Nazi concentration camp remind us how much we need each other.

Surrounded by my four walls, I’ve been thinking about ancient Athens, which for a single generation, from 454 to 430 B.C., erupted in pure genius. In a perfect storm of creative class-like action, its citizens founded the Western world. Our systems of government, science, philosophy, law, the arts and education are outgrowths of those 24 years.

Athenians valued civic life above all else. Rich and poor lived in similar kinds of housing and ate the same plain fare. People congregated: the rich mixed with the poor, foreigners were welcomed, eccentrics praised, and differences tolerated. The author Eric Weiner writes the condemned Socrates chose death over exile from his beloved Athens.

In time, what Weiner describes as a “creeping vanity” set in. The global city grew insular. The rich built big, showy houses. The streets became wider, the differences between the haves and the have nots, more glaring. Foreigners were shunned. Political divisions erupted. Athens went to war with Sparta. Farmland was destroyed. Tolerance dwindled.

https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/eric-weiner-genius-book-interview/
Ancient Athens was a place of genius where life was lived in the public eye. Photo/Wharton School of Business / The Geography of Genius by Eric Weiner

In 430 B.C., a plague killed nearly two-thirds of this dense city’s population. One of its victims was the great Pericles, who had been censured in the city’s political upheaval. A series of despots and tyrants rose to power. After a brief period of peace, war resumed, and Athens was absorbed into Sparta. Some historians have postulated the plague was caused by the Ebola virus, a coronavirus.

The density conundrum

https://www.worcesterart.org/exhibitions/past/hope-and-healing/sweerts_plague_detail.htm
Plague in Ancient City by Michael Sweerts. Photo / Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Years ago I visited the concentration camp Terezin outside of Prague. More than 150,000 Jews were sent to the camp; some 17,000 survived. I remember a guide commenting that the very act of crowding the Jews together so densely gave them the power of community. Artists, philosophers, musicians and scientists suffered alongside their fellows. There were no differences among them.

In 1944, the composer and conductor Rafael Schächter conducted a chorus of 150 prisoners singing Verdi’s massive “Requiem.” The performance was part of a Nazi propaganda initiative for a Red Cross inspection, and as chilling as the story is, I can’t help but wonder how much strength that beautiful project gave Schächter, his singers and their imprisoned audience.

The Czech composer Rafael Schächter conducting a chorus of Jewish prisoners at Terezin in their performance of Verdi’s “Requim.” Schächter was sent to the gas chambers soon afterwards.

The other thing I remember about visiting Terezin was a compulsion to leave as quickly as possible and never return, so vivid is the stamp imprinted by the place.

The need for foundations centered around people

We are not victims. We’ve ignored the Cassandras and their warning signals. We’ve pushed the natural world to a state of dry tinder and its inhabitants to homelessness, starvation and flea markets. There is a natural cycle to things, a cause and effect.

Will technology to save us? It will certainly help those who have the time and tools to use it, hopefully including both children and adults in need of a good education. It will continue to enrich those who create and dominate it. But, without guard rails, it will also drive us down the same path we’ve been on.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, a former surgeon general of the United States, has championed the role of happiness in health, including maintaining a vital social safety net. Quoted in a recent column on social distancing, he says:

“If we want to be a stronger, more resilient society, we have to focus on rebuilding foundations centered around people.”

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, author and former surgeon general of the United States

If we learn anything from history, it’s that nothing lasts forever, and everything has its price. Oh, and leadership matters.

Observations Made During a Search for Provisions, Day 7 of the Covid-19 Pandemic

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19?

Everyone is talking about how things will be. How will they be? I have no idea. What I do know is that people are afraid, which makes them very hungry. Some also feel the need to explain why they’re not following the usual courtesies. Some observations made today, Day 7 of the pandemic:

A man scanning the empty aisles of our largest neighborhood grocery store, “I guess I better come early in the morning. They clear the shelves by afternoon.” Indeed, all the raisins are gone. Ditto the Goya beans, my favorite. Ah! I snag a box of golden raisins, pushed to the back of the bottom shelf. Who are “they,” I wonder, and where are “they” putting all of this food?

Is insatiable hunger a symptom of Covid-19? (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)

Pet food, fully stocked. Should I worry about the cats and dogs? My staple Earl Grey tea, all brands. Gone. And I thought I was surrounded by coffee drinkers.

The checker at the same grocery store. He’s about 18. I try to make him laugh by asking where all the groceries were going. I get a smile as he shakes his head. “I don’t know. Don’t they know things go bad?” Together we wonder when we’ll all settle down, perhaps to a very large shared meal with lots of beans and raisins.

A woman opening the door of the UPS Store with her elbow as I approach sheltered behind a 36-in by 36-in box (the lamp my sister has rejected which I couldn’t return to the store which had closed overnight from the day I called to see if they were open): “I’d open the door for you except for this coronavirus thing.” The door closes just as I reach it. I’m impressed that she explains her actions to me.

Is it time to shop online? Should I worry about the environmental implications of paying Amazon Prime $13/month to bring me tea and raisins instantaneously? What about all those young delivery people who have no health insurance? Perhaps a victory garden in the flower pots on my balcony would work.

Like Scarlet O’Hara, I vow to think about it, not tomorrow, but next week when I run out of greens.

Take care. Be safe, and yes, if at all possible, stay home.

Communicating During a Crisis

Six takeaways from the U.S. response to the Covid-19 pandemic

In a crisis, nothing is more important — aside from saving lives — than clear, consistent communication. Our present crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic — offers some vivid lessons in Crisis Communications 101.

(1) Take responsibility. Have a plan. Trust is everything.

Leadership, leadership, leadership. At the helm of crisis management is a trusted, credible leader supported by a project team with a designated spokesperson and a group of experts germane to addressing situation, each with a clearly-defined role. This team is the source — through multiple channels — of clear, consistent messaging and regular updates.

(2) Deliver the facts clearly, accurately, and on a regular schedule. (Do not lie, obfuscate or bluster.)

A crisis is not the time to wing it. Don’t lie or offer false reassurance. I understand the pressure to deny the reality of a bad situation. But in the end all is revealed, and it’s just not worth it.

We’ve been blessed in Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Health Institute’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has the credentials (2008 Presidential of Freedom for his work with HIV/AIDS) and credibility to steer a rational response and call a spade a spade.

Brene Brown reminds us that we are at our worst when we’re in fear. Address the why/who/what/when to lessen isolation. Help communities figure out how to care for those who don’t have the money, mobility or transportation to prepare. Consider how to give people opportunities to help, despite social distancing. Despite an uptick in first-time gun sales, you probably don’t need an AR-15.

A dedicated website. If Google is developing it, that’s great, because a central repository of accurate information is pivotal.

Microscopic view of Coronavirus, a pathogen that attacks the respiratory tract. Analysis and test, experimentation. Sars. 3d render (Getty Images 1200706447)

(3) Stay out of the forecasting business.

Fact: No one knows the future. Set realistic expectations based on the information on hand and leave prognostication to soothsayers. They have disclaimers.

No vaccine or treatment exists for Covid-19. It takes 18-24 months to develop a vaccine for an unknown virus such as the one that causes the disease. The timeline is mandated by federal law which regulates the licensing of vaccines which require a series of clinical trials, animal and human. Here’s an interesting take from Dr. Jason McLellan, a scientist at the University of Texas who has been studying coronaviruses for years, and is working on a Covid-19 vaccine.

Given our proven lack of forecasting abilities, setting a deadline for the end of a crisis, particularly as it unfolds, opens the door to panic and blame.

(4) Use clearly-defined terms.

Hats off to Wired for a clear explanation of the pandemic’s terminology. Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses; SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the germ that causes the disease, and Covid-19 is the disease itself. Coronaviruses are so-called because the germs that cause the disease latch onto cells in a circular formation, like a crown or corona (see the image, above).

(5) Set clear guidelines and explain why.

At heart, we’re all children. We need rules. So give us clear guidelines, tell us why, and enforce them. That way, we know how to respond. The guardrails are in place.

Covid-19 differs from other coronaviruses in that its more contagious. With no vaccine in place, curtailing the virus’ spread is step one. If this means curfews, tell us and make it a national rule. We’ll adapt. Voluntary compliance is rarely effective. If you doubt this, check your neighbor’s (or maybe your) recycling bin. You’ll find the definition of “clean glass, paper and a very limited range of plastics” is far broader than you could have imagined.

(6) Remind people what’s most important.

Our culture is built on community. That’s how we earn a living, worship and create family and community bonds. And therein lies the biggest hurdle (and lesson) of Covid-19. I have no doubt that how we respond will define us for the foreseeable future. There are some really interesting things happening virtually which I’m exploring and will write about in a future blog.

Let’s learn our lessons well. My take: Give us accurate information. Deliver it consistently, through sources that we can trust. That way, we can follow the rules, take care of our neighbors and the vulnerable. And remember to take care of the environment because ultimately, that’s what we depend on.

Never Waste a Good Crisis

The word crisis has its roots in the Latin krisis, to separate, a reminder to step back and take a more objective look at our habits, expectations and momentum. Our world is shifting on its axis: Covid-19, an price war between oil giants, Meghan and Harry. It’s a time to reevaluate.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor head to Vancouver, striding off one stage and onto another, uncharted one. Frank Augstein/Associated Press

We’re being nudged, gently and not so gently. It’s quiet here in Austin, Texas. Typically at this time of year, the city is buzzing with SXSW. Residents rent their houses and pack up for Paris or Rome. Austin becomes a mini-Las Vegas, full of celebrities, adrenal rushes, music, deals and futurist thinking. Not so in 2020. This year we’ll take a different, as yet unknown approach.

Yesterday I had a phone interview with a prospective client looking for someone to plug in for a team member out on leave. Her questions were smart and focused: what value do you bring? But it wasn’t until afterwards that I acknowledged her critical thinking. Okay, so you’re different. How will you improve what we do and how we do it? Think more about us, and less about you. Hmm, a timely reminder.

Chatting with my neighbor Mohamed, the conversation turned to — the stock market. I asked him how old he was in 2008 when the Great Recession unfolded. He was 18, a freshman at Rice University in Houston. He’s morphed from a statistician (oil), to a sales analyst (software), to an entrepreneur. Now he tells me he’s where he wants to be, in technical sales. So far, the unknown doesn’t phase him. He’s unashamedly optimistic.

Off and on for the past month, The New York Times has advised practicing optimism. Yes, optimism, like abs, can be toned. And similarly, there’s value there. When we’re optimistic, more possibilities bubble to the surface.

Experimentation is risky. But at a certain point, remember, we are a very lucky in many, many ways. What have we got to lose by smiling and taking a new approach?

Meetings Aren’t Getting You Where You Want to Go? Try Something New

Are you getting the most out of the time you’re spending in meetings? Try Liberating Structures, a set of tools that cultivates a focused purpose and broad participation.

I thrive on early mornings but shun early-morning meetings. For me, morning is thinking time. Even summoning the power of speech before 9 am takes an effort. Nevertheless on Valentine’s Day, I led a group from the Women Communicators of Austin in dismantling their usual way of doing things to try a different approach.

Juggling bowls of oatmeal and cinnamon rolls, we took the bull by the horns and experimented with Liberating Structures, a set of collaborative tools that focuses shared participation on an articulated purpose. In this experiment, the purpose of the meeting was the answer to a question: “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?”

Never start a meeting without a clear purpose. Here, Monique Correon, WCA Careers Over Coffee coordinator, focus on how we can get the results we want.

Harnessing the collective problem solver

Most people approach meetings the way they do weddings and funerals: This is how we do it, making the results predictable. According to the Harvard Business Review, 90% of the people at your last meeting are daydreaming. Seventy-three percent are doing other work. If you care about your time and productivity, it’s a problem.

But we are social creatures; shared ideas and approaches are our secret sauce, the can of spinach Popeye pops open to defeat his arch-nemesis, Brutus. When we harness the meeting format, those shared ideas are transformed into what the New York Times columnist David Brooks recently described as “gatherings” where:

“…traits (like): open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.”

Too blue sky?  Maybe not.

Too much control or too little structure?

The answer to the meeting conundrum lies somewhere between fluidity and control, neither so tightly orchestrated the meeting’s structure sucks the spontaneity out of the discussion, nor so loose it degenerates into interminable chaos. Liberating Structures uses simple exercises based on 10 basic principles:

  • Never start without a clear purpose
  • Practice deep respect for people and local solutions
  • Include and unleash everyone (each person is given equal time)
  • Build trust as you go
  • Learn by failing forward
  • Practice self-discovery within a group
  • Amplify freedom and responsibility
  • Emphasize possibilities:  believe before you see
  • Invite creative destruction to make space for innovation
  • Engage in seriously playful curiosity

What we did: an early-morning example, with oatmeal:

The session began by establishing its purpose, why each of use was there. Because we were a diverse group with different roles and backgrounds, I made it a personal challenge, the answer to my question, “What is keeping you from doing what you want to do?

What followed was a series of linked exercises, each prompted by a question related to their challenge. Participants moved randomly around the room, sharing their challenge with others, deepening their understanding of its nature and sharing commonalities.

To rediscover forgotten resources and insights, each person worked alone, then sequentially with one and then three others, to share a personal success. Finally, we explored, individually and in small groups, what actions can be now to address the challenge. To respect everyone’s time, each exercise was timed.  

Liberating Structures builds trust and engagement by starting with small interactions and building to larger ones. Here, WCA President Jenny Magic (right) talks with Laura, a new member and new Austinite.

Failing forward

Monique Carreon, the meeting coordinator, a marketing manager at EOS, a tech startup that uses Agile methodology. Agile is terrific for software development, but it doesn’t solve the problem is giving each participant the opportunity to engage. Monique was completely engaged from our first conversation. We debriefed afterwards here’s what we’ll do differently next time:

  • Arrange the space for movement and flexibility:  This was my biggest oversight. Open space encourages engagement. Finding the room already set up with a single long table, I opted against dismantling it. More space would have made it easier to reconfigure the groups and maximize networking.  As a result, although the small groups were active, there was minimal overall group contribution.
  • Engage everyone equally:  I timed the small groups, but I did not time individual contributions. Had I done so, it would have equalized each person’s talk time and more fully encouraged listeners to talk.
  • Clarify and reinforce the meeting’s purpose: To be valuable, the discussion must tie back to the reason for the meeting. I didn’t brief latecomers and as a result, they were unable to participate fully.  

Nothing Ventured …

As WCA member, mentor and attention management expert Maura Nevel Thomas advises, “If you’re a leader, I encourage you to collaborate with other managers to take a fresh look at how you handle meetings.”

Liberating Structures is a living online collaborative. Over 30 structures are posted on the website, ready for application. If you have a virtual team, try using it with Zoom! for team meetings. Questions? There is a dedicated Slack channel. LS is used by the Gates Foundation, the World Bank, the U.S. Army, IBM, many nonprofits, and just maybe — you. Meetups and collaboratives are alive worldwide, so check it out:

Meetups in Austin, Texas; check for one in your area:

Room set up makes a big difference. Our interactions would have been more broadly distributed if the long table had been dismantled into smaller groupings. Even so, our approach got people thinking and talking about how to have better meetings.

Getting Sick Is the First Step In Getting Well

Giving up a habit, even such a small one as that morning cup of tea, can lead to a re-evaluation of our very habits of being. It’s a process that requires deciding who you want to be, paying attention, and getting help.

I had no idea I could learn so much from a cup of tea.

For decades, I’ve started my day with several cups of black tea so strong my friends consider it coffee. The tea, doused with creamy local milk, has been my kick start. I’ve also had, unpredictably and without any direct relationship to the tea, chest pains, vertigo and diminished energy. I blamed it on allergies (allergists outnumber mosquitoes in this town). But in December a test result prompted a call from my doctor who received a dose of reality: I inherited my father’s heart condition.

“Remember, getting sick is the first step in getting well.”

My friend Jessica Buckley

The fatty milk I loved to put in my tea had to go; in fact, the entire dairy section had to go. I dithered. I rationalized. I delayed. It took hours in waiting rooms full of people with their next-of-kin and a litany of tests costing as much as a Tesla, to convince me my morning tea habit was not worth the price.

One habit leads to another, and pretty soon you have yourself

Which got me thinking: If I don’t need the milk in my tea, what else do I no longer need? Why do I have a storage unit full of the past? Social obligations that are a duty, not a boost? Why have I let misunderstandings fester with siblings, friends and colleagues?

The easy fix would be to reduce the milk and clear out the storage unit, but the point is much bigger. If this collection of habits define me, which ones do I actually need to move forward? Is this the me I want to be? And do I have the guts to change?

The rule is to start small. I’m starting with — and I know it sounds silly — my fear of not getting my morning tea and milk. If I can give up my milky tea, will it give me the courage to examine those other habits crouching behind fortresses of defensiveness, vanity and just plain ole fear.

“We’re at our worst when we’re in fear.”

Brene Brown, On Being with Krista Tippett

To be undone by fear is a sad thing. Why not try something different?

Is the habit worth the price?

Pay attention and re-evaluate

We don’t pay attention, particularly to ourselves.

Again, the rule is start small. The first step is to pay attention to our bodies, so that when they falter, as the will, we can take corrective action. Consider my friend Sherida. We met for an early dinner, in the late afternoon when the blue-hairs gather. I asked her how she was able to leave work so early, and she told me she was taking iron infusions for severe iron anemia. She’d missed her annual check up for “two or three years,” which required her body to steadily adjust to lower and lower levels of iron.

“I didn’t notice anything,” she explained. But then there was that daily nap, constant nibbling and those shadows under her eyes. She didn’t have the time to pay attention until she was pulled up short by her doctor. “You’re a go-go woman,” she reported, “all go and no pause.” No quibble there. Sherida works a full-time job, takes care of a bi-polar son, is active socially and sings in her church choir.

But if we aren’t paying attention to the bodies we live in, how can we pay attention to our habitual reactions to angry colleagues or, heaven forbid, family members. Absent facts collected through observation, we can’t draw conclusions. We can’t get help, and we can’t change.

“Paying attention …makes room for the views of others. It allows us to begin to trust them — and more important, to hear them. It makes us willing to experiment, and it makes it safe to try something that may fail. It encourages us to work on our own awareness …It requires us to understand that to advance creatively, we must let go of something.”

Ed Catmull, Creativity Inc.

Caregiver alert!

If you take care of someone else, as almost every woman I know does in some capacity, you are in the danger zone. Caregiving is the gold standard of absenting oneself from oneself. It is a selfless act and a necessary one. But unmonitored, it also extols a high price. Caregivers, particularly family members who care for elderly relatives, can find their own lives diminished financially, socially and physically.

The typical family caregiver is a 49-year-old woman caring for her widowed 69-year-old mother who does not live with her. She is married and employed. Approximately 66% of family caregivers are women. More than 37% have children or grandchildren under 18 years old living with them.

Caregiver Action Network

I learned this the hard way. I put my life on hold for over a decade to take care of first my dad and then my mom. When my mom died and it was time to return to the job market, I was paralyzed. The habits and routines I’d built around caregiving left me unprepared to resume my own life. I didn’t know who I was anymore. I hadn’t been paying attention.

How can we build creative lives?

“You have to lead yourself. It’s your work.”

Jerrry Colonna, On Being with Krista Tippett

I’m a big fan of Reboot’s Jerry Colonna. I met Jerry when he was an editor of one of the leading technology magazines in New York. He later became a successful venture capitalist, burned out and is now an executive coach who helps the CEOS of start ups chart their path through “radical self inquiry.” His message is foundational to anyone who wants to lead a successful life: “Who have I been all my life? Who do I want to become?”

“The notion is to recognize that if things are not okay, if you’re struggling, you stop pretending and allow yourself to get help. Even more, it’s the process by which you work hard to know yourself — your strengths, your struggles, your true intentions, your true motivations, the characteristics of the character known as ‘you’.”

“How do we get the things out of the way that are barriers to being productive?”

Jerry Colonna, Reboot

Which takes me back to my friend Sherida. Sherida was raised her grandmother in Mississippi, and she laughs as she tells the story of how her grandmother taught her to make her own decisions. When she was about 10, Sherida decided to fake an illness to get her grandmother’s attention. The only pills she could find in the house were in a bottle of Midol. She poured them onto the table and waited for her grandmother to come home. When the door opened, Sherida grabbed a handful of pills and pretended she was going to swallow them.

“Go ahead, child, take those pills. They’ll either kill you or leave you deformed.” With that, her grandmother walked away. Sherida put the pills away.

So here I am, sitting with my cup of morning tea which today is black tea with soy milk. Tomorrow? Who knows. But this I know: the future is staring me in the face, and I better be prepared.

The Profound Nature of Mentorship

Mentoring is more than a one-on-one career-directed interaction. It’s also the process of teaching others — on a very practical level — what is okay and what is not okay. Case in point: MassChallenge Texas chooses SAFE Austin as its community partner to guide technology entrepreneurs in formulating corporate policy for the #MeToo era.

Working the room at MassChallenge Texas‘ holiday party, I wove through the tech entrepreneurs to discover SAFE’s Jackie Smith-Francis pitching, not the newest app, but what our community can do to curb human trafficking, in essence, reminding us how we should treat other human beings.

Smith-Francis was there representing SAFE as MassChallenge’s community partner. While 50 years ago, predators used fists or a gun to prey on their victims, the current weapon of choice is often the Internet. A whopping sixty-three percent of abused kids are entrapped online according to THORN, a nonprofit that investigates the intersection of technology and abuse. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to educate future innovators on the wider implications of their applications?

Follow the money

Texas, with its growing population of Range Rovers and Teslas, tops one “best of” list it’s not proud of: Texas has more active human trafficking cases than any other state. The cities where MassChallenge has offices, Houston and Austin, are trafficking epicenters. While Houston is more active, Austin attracts traffickers from all over the world with SXSW Austin City Limits and Formula One.

Unlike in-your-face challenges like homelessness, human trafficking operates under the surface, often invisible and generally exempt from prosecution. In a vivid example of a policy far outpaced by the speed at which technology is applied, Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides a legal firewall which shields Internet platforms like Facebook and Craigslist from crimes committed by people use their sites. A child may consider an offer legitimate because they see it on Facebook, never realizing that Facebook is just delivering the goods.

Should Section 230 prove insufficient, an industry has sprung up to mask the identity of companies willing to pay for protection. In a fascinating piece of investigative work for The New York Times, Gabriel J.X.Dance reports that 10 percent of the world’s top sites use Cloudflare to ensure even the tech savvy can’t detect their Internet location. Cloudflare, a billion dollar cybersecurity firm based in San Francisco, was named in 10 percent of reports of hosted child sexual abuse material and over 130,000 complaints about 1,800 sites reported to the Canadian Center for Child Protection since 2017.

Never underestimate the power of being smart about how you lead

Dispiritedly scrolling through the news this morning, I reminded myself a single, determined voice that’s smart in their approach can say, “this is not okay,” and build momentum for solving seemingly insurmountable problems. That’s the multiplier effect of leadership, and that’s what MassChallenge did by sponsoring SAFE.

Because in a moment of serendipity, just as MassChallenge was setting out the holiday lights, a state judge refused Facebook’s request to dismiss Houston attorney Annie McAdam’s lawsuits on the grounds of Section 230 protection.

Houston-based attorney Annie McAdams believes technology platforms can do more to protect the vulnerable. Photo/Brandon Thibodeaux, The New York Times

Ms. McAdams, a personal injury attorney, is suing Facebook on behalf of a trafficked client. Her point? Why can’t Internet companies like Facebook (or Craigslist or the myriad of other sites that host content that foments hate and abuse) do more to warn the their users? We hold car manufacturers accountable for air bags that don’t inflate, cigarette companies for encouraging a lethal habit, why are we not holding Internet platforms accountable for sexual slavery taking place on their platforms?

Set an example

Mentorship can go way beyond a one-on-one career-directed exchange. It is one very accessible aspect of leadership, the secret sauce that creates that multiplier effect. Mentorship can be organizational as well as personal, social and professional, and is often so subtle the mentor doesn’t recognize their imprint.

I was astounded to hear a dear friend who has refused to be sidelined even by a case of advanced Parkinson’s, wonder why a former colleague called to check on him every week. This is a man who has shaped so much of the city’s entrepreneurial culture and never neglected to make time for mentorship. People remember.

Was MassChallenge mentoring us partygoers, reminding us of the slippery slope from the workplace harassment that spawned the #metoo movement to human trafficking? Of the absolute necessity of putting policies in place to protect the vulnerable in both the corporate and broader corporate arenas?

Changing the status quo requires public as well as private sector leadership. Texas is fortunate that Congressman Michael McCaul (R-TX), the Lead Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Chairman Emeritus on the House Homeland Security Committee, has stepped up to the plate by sponsoring outreach events and promoting the awareness that leads to broad changes in public policy.

As we close one year and embark on the next, I’m reminded of my friend Francis Nail’s advice, “If you pray for anything, pray for forgiveness.” We have much to be grateful for, but we’re also responsible for our sins of omission, problems we’ve allowed to fester and grow. Let’s remember that each of us and especially those who mentor the next generation must be vigilant in working to make this world a better place.