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.

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.

Trading the Eagle for a $ Sign

The eagle is America’s canary in a coal mine: As global warming accelerates, the agencies in charge of managing its impacts on our health will no longer issue clear-cut guidelines to protect Americans from life-threatening pollution and habitat loss. Rather, the government has decided to take a case-by-case approach to protecting us, our land and the animals we share it with.

When you reach the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library as I did recently, turn, and you find yourself dwarfed by an immense presidential seal. At its center is the bald eagle, the symbol of both the United States of America and the office of its president. The scale and power of that symbol take your breath away.

But the eagle, tagged as the Endangered Species Act’s greatest success story, has fallen out of favor. Our government has decided to measure its value on the open market and reward the highest bidder.

Monetizing the environment

Bald eagles live in trees along waterways where they can nest and fish. Wetlands, prized by developers and vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, floods, effluence and all manner of disruptions, are rich, bio-diverse ecosystems the EPA compares to coral reefs and rain forests noting, “More than one-third of the United States’ threatened and endangered species live only in wetlands, and nearly half use wetlands at some point in their lives.” 

Like global financial markets, habitats are finely balanced. We tip the balance when we just don’t know any better, which is why clear-cut rules are so important. Water transmutes from rain to groundwater, to wetlands, to streams, each vulnerable in itself and as part of an interdependent ecosystem. Like the DDT which decimated eagle populations 50 years ago, contaminants flow into streams, rivers and seep into wetlands, poisoning fish, animals and humans.

Declaring war against ourselves

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior, charged with protecting our air, water and eagles, have been busy. Among their tsunami of actions is the “modernization” of the 1973 Environmental Species Act. New rules replace the Act’s clear-cut guidelines with a case-by-case approach, inserting subjectivity into legal determinations of whether protection is warranted. If the agencies’ track record is any indication, the government has refused to act even when the science is clear, and its own scientists recommend protection.

Consider the pesticide chlorpyrifos, cited by the EPA as the “most used conventional insecticide” and its own staff scientists as “dangerous.” Chlorpyrifos is sprayed on 50 of the crops we eat (broccoli, anyone), animal feed. Plan to call Mosquito Sam to get rid of those mosquitos in your yard or on the golf course?  Chances are Sam will use chlorpyrifos. The ear tags used to identify cattle in feed lots are treated with it, as are wooden fences. It travels into our homes via indoor bait traps and the produce we eat. It’s been found in carpets and on children’s toys. If studies on rats are any indication, it attacks the nervous system and can cause attention-deficit disorders and hyperactivity in children. It kills birds, bees and is absorbed into the tissues of fish and whatever eats them, just as the DDT decimated our eagles decades ago.

What is an eagle worth?

The government will use a mathematical model to weigh the value of monetizing its habitat by say, calculating projected logging revenue against preserving the trees where the eagles nest. The problem?  Subjectivity. A July 2019 analysis by Jim Damicis of the economic development consultancy Camoin Assoc., predicts the logging industry will decline over the next five years “driven by a slowdown of housing construction from recent peaks and from increased foreign competition.” Where’s the money?  More environmentally sustainable alternatives.

As for wetlands, critical to flood protection as well as wildlife preservation?  How does our eagle compare with a new resort?

There will be a reckoning

Outside, the temperature tops 99 degrees. The creek outside my window has been dry for over two months. Maps of the American West are the color of dried blood from drought. Our children are suing our government for its refusal to take positive action on global warming, emboldened by a 16-year with the audacity to sail across the Atlantic and tell Congress to pay attention to the science, and act.

Stacks displaying LBJ’s presidential papers occupy one vast wall of the LBJ Presidential Library.
Photo: New York Times

Standing there on the mezzanine of the LBJ Presidential Library, turn away from the eagle and face the opposite direction. Now you face President Johnson’s papers, bound in red. It’s the reckoning of one man’s efforts to fill what’s been called the most powerful office in the world. Johnson passed the Civil Rights Bill and passed Medicare and Medicaid into law. But he forfeited his legacy fighting a war against a perceived foreign threat.

The current administration is fighting a war against the air, land and water we depend on. There will be a reckoning.

Building the 5G Wall: What Do We Want to Become?

The Defense Innovation Board report on 5G is a warning that the U.S. is headed down a path of isolation that with disastrous economic and moral implications.

A super-fast national Internet exclusively for urban America? That’s the scenario that comes to mind in reading the Defense Innovation Board‘s report on 5G, the next generation of super-fast wireless communication. Written by technology’s A-List, it outlines a trajectory that separates cities from rural areas, the have’s from the have-not’s and the United States from the rest of the world in a “post-Western wireless ecosystem.”

“The leader in 5G stands to gain hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue over the next decade, with widespread job creation across the wireless technology sector. 5G has the potential to revolutionize other industries as well … The country that owns 5G will own many of these innovations and set standards for the rest of the world…

That country is currently not likely to be the United States.”

“The 5G Ecosystem: Risks & Opportunities for DoD,” Defense Innovation Board
(L to R) Mark Sirangelo, Milo Medin, Jennifer Pahlka, Eric Lander, Marne Levine, Eric Schmidt, J. Michael McQuade, Missy Cummings, Richard Murray, and Adam Grant. (DOD/Lisa Ferdinando)

Chaired by former Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, the Board was commissioned by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to make recommendations to the Dept. of Defense on the next wave of innovation.

I recommend the 30-page document itself, but if you’re pressed for time, try Dr. Lee, Physic Genius’ more entertaining version though, disclosure, despite some inquiries, I have no idea who Dr. Lee is.

A technical approach that deepens divisions

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission allocates the electromagnetic spectrum. Most current 5G development is in the “sub-6” range. But in the United States, the military owns that portion of the spectrum. So the FCC made a higher-band width known as “mmWave” available for commercial development, which is where Verizon and AT&T are developing their 5G offerings.

Courtesy of Policy Tracker

Only two other countries currently support mmWave for 5G. Both of these countries are now U.S. allies — Japan and South Korea — and both are using a dual strategy, developing both the sub-6 and mmWave ranges.

U.S. policy makers and suppliers hope mmWave will eventually become the global standard, but as the Defense Innovation Board report makes clear, it’s not a strategy to hang your hat on. MmWave transmissions are more powerful but shorter and blocked by solid barriers — walls, trees, even people. Providing comprehensive service will require what the report labels a “massive infrastructure build-out” ($$$). If and when that is successful, mmWave service may not be viable for rural areas, where reliable connectivity is a literally a lifeline.

Consider that despite diplomatic tensions with China, Canada recently signed a contract with Huawei to deliver 4G LTE to rural communities in the Arctic, remote areas of north-eastern Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador and according to Huawei, some 25 communities in the largely Inuit areas of the Nunavut territory.

Own the IP; own the industry

No American company makes the base station equipment to transmit 5G signals. The United States owned the majority of 4G-related standards-essential patents. But today over one-third, (34%) of worldwide standards-essential patents for 5G technology are owned by Chinese companies, 15% by Huawei alone, according to Asia Nikkei News. South Korea is second, with over 25% of standard-essential patents.

That will make building the network infrastructure for autonomous cars or next generation factories more expensive for U.S. companies. But owning the intellectual property will reduce costs and accelerate China’s building the infrastructure of the future.

Courtesy of Nikkei Asian Review

Huawei has signed 50 contracts to provide next-generation 5G networks to 30 countries including Italy and the United Kingdom.

Courtesy of Nikkei Asian Review

We damn the consequences at our peril

Were the United States to decide to compete with the rest of the world, the Board’s report provides a timeline. Sharing the sub-6 spectrum will take five years, and the Board considers a sharing spectrum a viable alternative. Clearing the spectrum would take 10 years. This would get us to the starting gate — if the federal government were to open up the sub-6 range. And that’s a big “if” in this political environment.

“Damn the consequences!”

General George Patton

The consequences of isolation are immeasurable. Beyond the obvious — American competitiveness, jobs, standard of life, education, opportunity — connectivity is the root capability for solving every over-arching problem we face — climate change, income inequality, immigration, human rights.

I just finished reading Hyeonseo Lee‘s remarkable story of escaping from North Korea with her family. She’s paid a broker to get her mother and brother to South Korea when they are imprisoned in Laos. Here, she’s waiting to enter Laos to rescue them:

About 20 people were waiting in line to have their passwords stamped. A few were backpacking white Westerners in high spirits. I looked at them with envy. They were inhabitants of that other universe, governed by laws, human rights and welcoming tourist boards. It was oblivious to the one I inhabited, of secret police, assumed IDs and low-life brokers.”

Hyeonseo Lee, The Girl with Seven Names

Laws, human rights and a high standard of living are part of a vulnerable legal and moral infrastructure. Protecting its integrity and viability requires an actionable connectivity policy and a cogent strategy. The Defense Innovation Board report is a warning salvo. We must make sure that it is heard.