Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Charlene Li chisels at the Berlin Wall, November 11, 1989
Charlene Li chiseling at the Berlin Wall, November 11, 1989

25 years ago, I was living in Amsterdam watching the events unfold in Berlin, as the Wall Fell. I saw history in the making on the TV and wanted to be there to witness it. I bought a ticket and took the night train to Berlin, arriving early Saturday morning. I found a youth hostel, deposited my luggage, and joined the throngs of people wandering around West Berlin. Many were from East Berlin, getting their first look of the other side of their city in decades.

The city was relatively quiet — except for the persistent ching ching ching ringing in the distance. It was the sound of hammer and chisel in the hands of hundreds of people, taking a chip of the wall, of history.

I joined them along one section of the wall, borrowed a set from someone and got a few hunks to take home. I have searched in boxes for years to find those pieces, last sighted when I moved to California 13 years ago. I’m resigned that they are gone.

Wandering around, I saw a troop of Santa Claus impersonators, standing on the wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, belting out Christmas Carols. This was the same place where President Ronald Reagan issued the challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” There were scenes like this all over the West Berlin, people walking around in a dazed, disbelieving state. Could this be real? Will it last? What will this mean for the future?

In the dwindling light of the day, I wandered over to Checkpoint Charlie and did the opposite of what everyone else was doing — I went into East Berlin. I wandered the streets and made my way to the other side of the Brandenburg Gate. It was there that I realized that they wall wasn’t being torn down. It was being “chinked” down and had been for years. It was the building force of refugees and dissenters in Eastern Europe that finally pushed open the Iron Curtain. It was a people’s revolution, and the realization by the East Berlin government and border guards that they could no longer contain it.

I’ve had the chance to visit Berlin several times since then, roughly about every five years or so. The physical transformation is startlingly — nothing is recognizable and the gleaming newness of East Berlin draws the tourists and crowds. All that remains of Checkpoint Charlie is the museum. And the Brandenburg Gate is a traffic thoroughfare.

As someone who watches and writes about the changes and transformations cause by technology, it’s a good reminder that behind every major transformation like the Fall of the Berlin Wall are people. Transformation do not happen on their own. Technology does not transform. People do. It’s up to the leaders of the organization to recognize that the transformation is happening, with or without them. And if they really are looking out for the best interests of their shareholders/stakeholders, they will tear down the walls that hold back digital transformation and find ways to be more open and transparent.

Look what happened to Berlin when it opened the gates — it became whole. My hope is that organizations and leaders will find the courage to open up as well.

Fun Foray: Electric Vehicle Test Drive

Occasionally, I’ll depart from my usual writing about business and technology and post about something more personal, which I call a Fun Foray. 

EV_SignI recently had the opportunity to test drive an electric vehicle (EV) over the weekend — a Chevy Spark — thanks to the Experience Electric #TheBetterRide program. Background: I’m an ardent hybrid owner and am on my second Prius, a 2010 standard model. I’m also the owner of an SUV and live in San Francisco where parking is a challenge. I am writing this post to share what I found out about owning an EV, and also my thoughts about buying one in the future.

Summary: It’s not much of a savings over a hybrid like the Prius, but I would be emitting less than a third of the CO2 emissions with the EV. I definitely see an EV as a second, run-around-the-city car. If range and charging station locations increase, I’d even consider it as my primary vehicle.

The Chevy Spark

I picked up my Chevy Spark and my first thought was that it was really small! I didn’t even realize that it had four doors (cleverly hidden up by the window) until my teenagers got into it. In terms of comfort and room, the front seats are great. My 6’ 3” friend felt that it would be fine for driving around the city but not for long trips. My teenage daughter reported however that the back seat headrest was uncomfortable, regardless of how she positioned it. My tall friend could barely get into the back — and there was no way for him to sit back there for even a short ride. Parking was a breeze — although not as small as a Smart car, I had a lot more choices than with my Prius.

The Driving Experience

My one previous experience driving an EV was a test drive of the Tesla S Model. The amazing thing about EVs is the responsive acceleration — there is no delay between pressing the pedal and the car shooting forward. The Spark was fun in this way like the Tesla S — on numerous drives around San Francisco, when I had a clear road ahead of me at a stop light, I was able to accelerate to 35 MPH in no time. If you’ve ever driven in San Francisco, it’s an endless series of stop signs at every corner. OK, it’s no Tesla, but the Spark was a thrill to drive, and I could indulge in jackrabbit starts with a lot less guilt.


With a range of about 85 miles when fully charged, I didn’t have to worry about running out of “gas” at any point over my two-day test drive. One of my trips took me to the Fifth and Mission Garage, which has charging stations. The rental key fob had a ChargePoint card on it, which I tapped on the station to activate. After that, it was pretty straightforward to charge the car. ChargePoint has a handy app that shows you where stations are located – they are plentiful all around San Francisco, and then centered mostly on campuses of school or enlightened employers.

Charging at home was very straightforward — simply plug the charger into a regular wall outlet. It takes about 20 hours to fully charge an empty battery from empty. The bigger issue is having to think about plugging in your car. It make take a few extra minutes each time I park, but the trade-off is that I won’t have to go to gas stations anymore. I estimate I’d likely plug in my car overnight maybe 1-2 times a week, max.


One of the best parts about driving an EV is the good karma I felt about not contributing as much to CO2 emissions. The amount of CO2 EVs generate have everything to do with the way electricity is generated for your location. The Sierra Club has a great calculator that does this hard work for you. Assuming I drove the Spark 15,000 a year, I would generate 3,632 pounds of CO2 a year. My current Prius Hybrid generates about 11,692 pounds of CO2 a year — that’s more than 3X more. Definitely good karma!

The Economics

In looking at the costs, I didn’t include the actual cost of the car — way too many permutations. I looked instead at the gas costs instead. (A helpful resource is PG&E’s PEV Calculator). Again, a key determinant is how many miles you drive a day, what kind of car are replacing, and also the type of rate plan you have. When I had solar in a previous home, I qualified for what is called the “EV-A” plan that has lower rates for off-peak electrical use, versus the “E-1″ plan that is flat metering. Doing, the calculations, here’s the cost savings, depending on plan and vehicle type being replaced. Overall, if I just replaced my current Prius with the Spark EV, I would save a grand total of $60 a year if I drove a day. But if I replaced my SUV with an EV (not really an option as the use cases are completely different) it starts looking a lot more attractive.


 An EV in My Future

When I’m next in the market for a car, I will definitely consider an EV, as most of my daily driving is well within range of today’s EV. If the range can be extended to 250 miles, I would replace my large SUV with an EV SUV (today, only the Toyota RAV4 is on the market). I’m grateful that CCSE is bringing EVs to people for test driving and education, and that I had an opportunity to drive one over an extended period of time. I would like to see them also push the parallel issue of putting more alternative energy production in place. San Francisco lives in one of the most solar energy rich regions of the world, even with our famous fog. I’d love to see the city promote not just the use of EVs, but also the installation of more green energy options on our rooftops.

My TED Talk: Leading in the Digital Era


I crossed an item off my bucket list when I gave a TED Talk at TED@IBM on Sept. 23rd. The event was part of the new TED Institute, which partners with companies to create TED-curated events.

The title of my talk was “Giving Up Control: Leading in the Digital Era”. One key data point from Gallup that continues to astound me is that worldwide only 13% of people are engaged in their work. It’s higher in the US, standing at 30% but that’s still terrible!

I believe that a big reason for this is that we don’t give enough autonomy to, and respect the growing agency of our employees, especially for the Millennials who crave purpose and meaning in their work. The hierarchies that exist in our organizations were designed for a bygone era where efficiency and scale were paramount. But today, speed, innovation, and creativity are the sources of competitive advantage.

Companies have been responding, deploying collaboration platforms and enterprise social networks to connect people throughout the organization. Shrinking the distance between previously siloed departments, or between executives and the front lines sounds great — unless you’re a middle manager.

The biggest problem leaders face in the digital era is that power and influence are being decoupled from titles and organizational structure. So how can you be an effective leader? Here are the three things that organizations can do:

  1. Create a Culture of Sharing. Instead of hoarding information to be powerful, leaders have to become facilitators who accelerate the sharing of information across a networked organization.
  2. Encourage the Practice of “Followership”. The size and quality of your network, not your title, determines how much power and influence you have, and thus, how much you can get done. If employees could build their “followership” across the organization and even outside the organization, then even if their titles or jobs changed, they could still be highly effective. This creates tremendous security that allows these managers to make tough decisions that might otherwise jeopardize their livelihood.
  3. Ensure Networks are being used to Make Meaningful Decisions. People are smart — they won’t devote time to engaging unless they know it’s going to make a difference. The biggest mistake I’ve seen organizations do when trying to transition into the digital era is to use these new tools to create the equivalent of a digital water cooler — talking rather than getting work done. No wonder they don’t last! Get leaders to pay attention, make key decisions on these networks and people will come.

What each of these has in common is the need to give up control. In the talk, I shared the journey I’m going through as the parent of teenagers, as they push for greater autonomy and trust to make their own decisions. In our work, if we truly want to have an engaged workforce, then we’re going to have to lead differently, and establish a new kind of relationship and trust that’s created and deepened with these digital tools.

I’ve embedded the slides and script of my talk below. In a few weeks, the video of my talk will be available and I’ll embed that here as well. I hope you find these materials helpful in your journey to become a leader in the digital era.

Blogging as a State of Mind: Reflections on 10 Years of Blogging

people in the information spaceTen years ago today, I wrote my first blog post, entitled “Blogging as a State of Mind”. I still vividly remember the moment — my palms were sweating as I pressed the “Publish” button on my Typepad blog for the first time. I was excited, but nervous about what was going to happen. What would people think? What if I made a mistake?

What happened was that I became completely transformed by the interactions and relationships of people I’ve met through my blogging and subsequently, social media activities. I’m eternally grateful to everyone who has encouraged, supported, and engaged with me — I have grown and learned so much. [Read more…]

Content Marketing Software: How to Make Smart Choices

If you are involved in any shape or form with content marketing, you know what a big headache it can be for your organization. It extends beyond the Marketing department — Sales can’t get detailed, localized information to salespeople in the field. The social team needs more granular, atomized content produced multiple times a day. Customer service spends excessive time tracking down information to find that it’s outdated. And even HR seeks out relevant content in its battle for top talent. And rarely is there a centralized group that leads a coherent content strategy for the organization.

Against this backdrop is a dynamic, ever-changing landscape of vendors — hundreds of vendors with more emerging every day. [Read more…]