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.”

SXSW Interactive: Can design change the way we think about healthcare delivery?

Can we use the creativity and rigors of the design process to change how we deliver health care?  After a week of SXSW Interactive, I’d say yes, it makes sense and certainly couldn’t hurt. After over a decade seeing two parents through the Kafka-esque twists and turns of the health care system, I consider the American approach to delivering medical (and elder-) care on par with Chinese water torture, only more expensive.

Pauline van Dongen's solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?
Pauline van Dongen’s solar-paneled dress prompts us to re-examine why we wear clothing. Why not apply that same thinking to health care?

Here in Austin, The University of Texas announced a radical-sounding partnership between the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas Dept. of Art called The Design Institute for Health. The newly-formed group, led by two veterans from IDEO, the design firm famous for its longstanding relationship with Apple, are part of a push to figure out how to deliver community-based health care funded based on the “value it creates.”  The medical school’s charismatic dean, Dr. Clay Johnston, is inviting hospitals, doctors, nonprofits and the community as a whole to help re-think what the farm animals in the movie “Babe called “the way things are.”  I can’t imagine many things more challenging, or exciting.

If you have any doubts about the mind-unleashing power of design, I refer you to Paola Antonelli’s SXSW keynote, “Curious Bridges: How Designers Grow the Future.”  Antonelli, the curator of architecture for the Museum of Modern Art, guides us through a series of examples of design that provokes us to re-think the “way things are.”  Examples include a belt that simulates menstruation (to, one presumes, produce empathy in the opposite sex) and wearable clothing made with 3D printers that simulates the body’s movement created by Pauline van Dongen, who wore a sweater made of flattened solar cells during her session later that day. Think about it, technology-based clothing that’s comfortable, practical and adaptable.

Design was the subtext of a fascinating but sparsely-attended talk by Eric Topol’s called “Democratizing Health Care.” Here is a doctor, researcher and (I have to assume) AMA member, who understands that people want healthcare to be simple, affordable and effective. After opening his talk by citing medication errors as the fourth cause of death in the United States, Topol showed a portfolio of on-demand tools — a wrist band to detect seizures, an app to measure arrhythmia, or using a smartphone to digitize the heart — technology moving at the pace of Moore’s Law to troubleshoot, coordinate and identify illness — without causing the patient to go broke or die.  I don’t think any of the devices Dr. Topol showed were ready for prime time, but they they — or improved versions — will be, and they will advance the revolution.

Why not?  If we can cast off stilettos and create sympathy for PMS, why not re-think health care as a human service for real people?

Can Lassie be saved? When re-branding doesn’t work

I’m still reeling about Lassie. That the scion of a loyal, courageous, elegant line of war heroes (The Courage of Lassie) has been re-positioned as the “Kate Middleton of animals” is more than I can bear.

Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  Courtesy of The New York Times.
Lassie, enduring her rebranding as a product pitch dog.  (Courtesy of The New York Times)

Granted re-branding is tricky, as are brand extensions. Should this young Lassie have been a brand extension instead of a re-brand?  Can Lassie come home?

Case in point:  I’ve been admiring a new extension of a venerable local brand as it’s come together over the last several months.  The new building is adjacent to the original, so the relationship of mother-to-child is obvious. Of course, this is not Hollywood, but we’re getting close to it here in Austin, Tex.

The original, Fonda San Miguel, is a gorgeous place filled with a world-class art collection, food and drink. A welcoming, elegant restaurant with adjacent gardens.

It's the kind of restaurant eople take pictures of each other standing in front of
It’s the kind of restaurant where you go to curry favor.

Here’s the extension. It’s unannounced, unopened but rumored to be a tapas bar.  Perfect, no?

The new tapas bar of Fonda San Miguel in Austin, Texas.
The child of the grand Fonda San Miguel, just across the garden in Austin, Texas.  A bit of hipster funk.

The brand extension works because it contrasts with the original while maintaining the flavor. It’s unexpected, but it makes sense. (I sound like I’m at a wine tasting, don’t I?  But you understand what I’m saying.)

A lesson for Dreamworks?  Don’t tamper with an icon.  Did anyone ask Marilyn Monroe to lose weight?  Well, probably, but that’s another conversation.

Is it presumptious to compare a Hollywood icon to a local institution?  Perhaps. But then again why not, if something is to be learned?

Maybe Lassie’s great-great-great offspring should have been renamed “Lasi” and positioned as a fashion blogger?

Beyond Work Hard/Play Hard: Building a Resilient Culture

The most surprising aspect of a SXSW Interactive workshop on corporate culture was how few people showed up and participated.  “Beyond Ping Pong Tables: Building Better Companies” was by far the best discussion of that behavioral petri-dish we call culture I’ve ever attended.  Led by a fascinating leadership trio, it condensed experience from the nonprofit, Wall Street, entrepreneurial and corporate worlds:

  • Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup
  • Rasanth Das, co-founder, Bhakti Center (and former Wall Street banker)
  • Vipin Goyal, founder and CEO, SideTour (and former McKinsey consultant)

    More than work hard/play hard:  Culture is a major success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.
    Culture is a major organizational success factor. Be intentional in cultivating it.

The takeaway:  Each of us is a culture cop. Culture is everybody’s business. . Our values model our behavior, which shapes our culture.  It starts with the CEO, but everybody else is part of the  check and balance.

All too often this becomes a cult of CEO’s personality.  Vibrant organizations understand this and intentionally transform this misplaced focus on externals into an organization-wide investment in the values that shape people’s behavior.

Casual cultures break down under pressure, as do dysfunctional ones.  I’ve learned this the hard way first, as a veteran of IBM’s implosion in the 90’s, during the start up bust of the early 2000’s and again with a small agency.  Warning:  Disintegrating cultures are very painful and lead to their own form of PTSD.  Practical tips from Lawrence, Das and Goyal:

Hire for culture over competence; ask candidates:

            • What books are you reading?
            • What was the last thing you googled?
            • What do you watch on TV/movies?

Think of the employee handbook as an articulation of corporate culture:

  • Considering a new job?  Ask to read the handbook.
  • Check for vacation guidelines, maternity/paternity leave, and gauge it against your values
  • How does the physical space allow for interaction, concentration or lack of both?  Does it offer multiple functional spaces?  Common spaces for accidental intersections?

The hardest:  Spend time talking about culture. It may be your biggest success factor:

  • Sacred cow bbq, where people list their nonnegotiables on post-its, prioritize and distill them into a list of values.
  • Write a corporate obituary, what do you want customers, employees to remember?

Food for thought – and action.

 

 

Here’s to the Joyful Pivot

It’s not just Ben Bernake;  sudden course corrections are the rule of the day.  I used to worry about feeling stuck.  Then I heard the musician Laurie Anderson say she feels stuck all the time.  Now I worry if I don’t feel stuck; I figure if I’m comfortable, I’m not paying attention.

Most of us don’t make tough decisions until there’s a crisis. Detroit didn’t pivot — if that’s what it was — until it was broke.  We lose a client (or worse, a friend), an elderly parent falls and breaks a hip, we lose our job.  

Writing in Forbes, Martin Zwilling defines (the over-used term) pivot as a quick change in direction that keeps an organization grounded in what’s been learned.  “(Startups that pivot) keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future.”

Nothing is more reassuring than the scent of possibility.

The trick is to separate setback from failure and train our eyes on the possible.  I’m reminded of an anecdote the marvelous Laurie Anderson told during her recent visit here:  It became clear that a collaboration with Brian Eno wasn’t working.  Eno clapped his hands and said, “Oh boy, a problem.  We can throw everything out and re-think the thing.”

That’s such a large idea:  being Joyful when things don’t go as planned. Years ago, I worked with the talented producer Linda Batwin.  I’d asked her help with a corporate project that wasn’t going as smoothly (surprise!).  I was in a snit, and Linda said to me, not in a preachy way, but as someone working towards mastery:  I try to enjoy the process.

So here’s to possibilities — and the process of working towards them with joy, wisdom and hopefully, a little help from our friends.

Courtesy Fast Company Design
Courtesy Fast Company Design

Over Deliver and Keep ‘Em Coming Back for More

“Do you know anyone in Togo?”

Brand loyalty is built by extraordinary service.
Brand loyalty is built on relationships.

I picked up the call over 20 years ago on a July 4th afternoon.  The voice at the other end of the line belonged to an AT&T customer service representative who’d flagged a series of calls from my number to a tiny country on Africa’s Gold Coast.  By going beyond her job description (or contract, or scope), she saved me hundreds of dollars and countless hours spent trying to straighten the mess out.  She made my life a little easier.

Brand loyalty isn’t always logical, but it has a long memory.  AT&T is an entirely different entity than it was then, but I continue to have an emotional connection with the brand.   I told this story to an AT&T call center representative once when I was trying to untangle a bill.  I’m not sure they got it.

The market has changed, as have my needs. AT&T long ago laid off the people who did what that woman did.  I hope she is happily retired — or teaching companies how to bond with customers for life.

I recently moved into a building served by another provider and got a quick refresher on the  bare-knuckles world of the consumer broadband industry:  bait and swap, if-you don’t-like-it-take-your-business-somewhere-else.  No brand loyalty there.

A friend once critiqued a piece of work I did, “Remember, over deliver and keep ’em coming back for more.”

On whatever scale you’re operating, those are words to the wise.

The Boy Who Wants to Be a Scientist

I took the iPod out of my young friend’s ear and suggested he would make a great mayor.  “I don’t want to be a mayor, he said.  “I want to be a scientist.”

I was impressed.

I have a young friend who wants to be a scientist.
I have a young friend who wants to be a scientist.

“What kind of scientist?” I asked.

“An engineer,” and then he paused.  “I want to be everything.”

My admiration grew.  My friend is 10 years old — 11 next month.  I met him at the Helping Hand Home for Children, where he’s spent the last couple of years after a rocky experience in the foster care system.  Next week, he goes back to the family from which he was removed.

I replaced the earpod and looked at him. My friend is at the intersection of many of the great debates of our time — race, abortion, economic opportunity, multiculturalism.  I don’t know why he was taken from his family, but whatever it was, it must have been pretty horrible.  To become a scientist, a mayor, or a repairman in a power substation will require super-human work, hope and magic.  If he fails to pull it off and becomes homeless, goes to jail or abuses his kids, we’ll be the ones who pay the price.  Literally.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could make my friend’s path a little easier?

Solutions to complex problems happen when people begin to talk with one another.  A few weeks ago, inspired by an editorial on civil exchange, I signed up for red bench training.  The genesis of the idea came from Dr. Betty Sue Flowers, a business consultant, poet, educator and administrator and communicator (who is also a native Texan and former director of LBJ Presidential Library):

I think people don’t feel they have permission to talk about something that makes them as vulnerable as love, so we don’t usually talk about it in public. I once had the idea of having a red bench in every corporation. And the red bench to be an invitation to conversations that matter. So if you sat on the red bench, you were saying, I’m open to having a conversation about love, or a conversation about truth, or something that matters to me.    Dr. Betty Sue Flowers

The red bench conversations encourage people to build relationships. (Photo courtesy of Christy Tidwell)
The red bench conversations encourage people to build relationships. (Photo courtesy of Christy Tidwell)

Civil exchange is a prerequisite for collaboration, which is the way most things get done. Note that Dr. Flowers proposed red bench conversations as part of a project she did for Royal Dutch Shell.  Here in Austin, Interfaith Action of Central Texas  runs a program built around the idea.  iACT Executive Director Tom Spencer wrote the editorial that prompted me to act. Check it out in your community.

We may be able to begin a conversation that will help my young friend. He would make a great mayor.

Perfectionism as the ultimate fake out

If you feel in need of a good, healthy slap in the face, I recommend Andrew Solomon’s brilliant Far from the Tree, a page turner of a book about those among us who are born different — the deaf, dwarves, homosexuals, children of rape.  It’s required reading for the 21st century, especially for people like me who whine when we fall short of (fill in the blank).

Stop worrying and start making yourself and the world around you better.
Stop worrying about being perfect. Start improving.

Solomon’s Tree gives those us blessed to be born in the middle of the bell curve a benchmark with which to measure our own silly self-preoccupations, among which I must say, perfectionism stands out as a colossal waste of energy.

Fortunately, thanks to Brene Brown, population explosion, social media and the first amendment,  perfectionism has fallen out of favor.  Witness the snarky comments about the talented, drop-dead gorgeous Anne Hathaway.  We don’t like to be shown up.

So, quick, while perfection is not trending, let’s try to figure out how to put all the energy we spend worrying about future outcomes into actually trying to make both ourselves and the future better.  Case in point: public speaking has never been easy for me. I can suffer insomnia, panic attacks and temporary amnesia prior to giving a talk.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to put that effort into preparing?  Wouldn’t it be logical to just talk about what I care about rather than trying to sound like I have it all together?

Ever listen to “From the Top,” the radio show about young musicians?  These kids spend four and five hours a day practicing their art and seem to thrive on the process. They’re focused, fun and innovative.  They don’t whine. I hope they’re the future.  Out with suffering artists and tortured, overly competitive achievers!

On a community level, here in Austin, which has always been a high-volunteer/low donation city, “I Live Here, I Give Here” program sponsored Amplify Austin, a day-long donation marathon, sort of like “1,000 Points of Light” meets Kickstarter.  The result?  $3 million for non-profits.  What an improvement over whining!

The point is that making things (and oneself) better takes a lot of work, but not necessarily self-torture.  Even moving forward is hard.  But consider the alternative.

The other thought is — and this is a separate post — there’s a trick to weaving a story — about oneself, a client or colleague — that makes the process a lot easier — and more fun.  It worked for Jane Austen (who doesn’t want to be Elizabeth Bennet?) and Scheherazade.  Why not us?

So, let it go.  Take a minute and do a little jig.  Recite “The Owl and the Pussycat.”  Go make something better.