ABOUT MY GUEST
Tara Lemméy does invention – really big invention. From US National Security to large scale entertainment systems. From drones and autonomous technologies to internet protocols.
Ask her what she’s working on and it’s probably a secret. She partners with some of the most innovative CEOs and companies in the world.
What’s not a secret, is that you can find her at LENS Ventures making startups, patenting technologies and telling very funny stories.
Recorded on 4th February 2021.
Nathalie: Tara, thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Tara: Oh, it’s my pleasure.
Nathalie: We are living through a very interesting point in history right now, and I’d like to start by asking what you think is happening in the global human psyche, if we use that frame.
Tara: I think that we have a dual situation. We have people who’ve been able to take a pause from a very aggressive work life and have this moment at home and understand what it looks like to sort of recenter themselves at home as the center of their being. And then decide as we sort of come out of the pandemic, what they want that balance to be. We have a large group of people who can do that. We have another group of people who have never been able to do that, our essential workers have never worked from home, and they may need to recover from this. We may see them go through a period of pause that they’re going to need to recover from the grief and the stress of the last year, year and a half, two years when it’s finally over. And then we have sort of a global grief that we’re going to have to work our way through and understand what that looks like for the adults and for the children in our lives.
Nathalie: I think that grief is something which it gets mentioned a bit, but it doesn’t get mentioned a huge amount. Are there certain ways in which we can support each other through that grief, whether within the confines of our kind of more personal intimate spheres, or even within wider society stretching to the workplace?
Tara: Well, to my mind, I think that we can have people talk more about loss, and that may be actual loss of life, and it may be grief over people in their community they lost, or in their family they lost. It may be the loss of great players in areas they love. I know that the jazz community has lost many, many people who were titans in that sphere. And so there’s constant posts of grief and loss there. Maybe it’s loss of what you might’ve done in the year that you were home or the year we were sequestered from each other. What we might’ve achieved, what we might’ve seen, the travel we might’ve taken or the celebrations we might’ve had together. Those are all losses, and for each of those there’s grief and we may not have all acknowledged that yet. So when we come together, we’ll both have the joy of being able to get back together, and I think some time to express our loss of the time we weren’t with each other.
Nathalie: I think with that, it weaves into this other theme of resilience and what it means to, I guess, to endure and persevere and pull through and integrate the difficult experiences that we’ve had to go through. And I’m curious from your perspective, how you conceive of resilience or what resilience means to you.
Tara: Resilience in large systems, which is a space I’ve spent a lot of time, both in national security and in businesses, communities often looks like sort of a done well. In technology we talk about graceful collapse and then a graceful rebuild. When you design systems to be resilient, you don’t want them to disassemble all at once. You want them to be able to be modular enough to fall back and then come forward. I think that those notions can be helpful for people as they think which systems came back for them, and how do they rebuild forward and in a modular way, not thinking everything’s going to reappear at once. Resilience is about slowly putting the pieces back together and thinking about where you go from them, and not going from zero to a hundred full stop, because it doesn’t give you the space and grace to sort of have a new strength that comes with it.
Nathalie: I love the idea of resilience connecting with aspects of ourselves that are modular. It’s funny because I was talking with one of my close friends just last week, we went for coffee. There’s three of us. We were talking about the ways in which we’ve engaged with the time that we’ve had during the last 12 months. And one of my friends said, “Oh, but you’ve been the most productive. You’re going to have a book coming out of this.” What I was thinking, as she said, it was, it’s not just about something that you can create. It’s also about these other qualities and both of them have engaged in other modules of themselves. So one’s been a lot more creative, the other has been a lot more into diving into herself and doing yoga and mindfulness. I think there is something interesting about that question, of what aspects of ourselves have we had to dial back or we haven’t paid attention to that now maybe require from us greater attention and cultivation.
Tara: I think that that’s going to be true for us at the individual level, but also within our organizations. I think as we really start to come together again as community, we get to decide what was important and what wasn’t important. What fell away that we don’t want to bring back to the party and what did we think, wow, we can use way more of that. For some people, they will have spent more time in mindfulness or more time and understanding how important it is for them to have a practice for themselves, or to have a separation from work in life because they’ve had to practice it in their homes, as opposed to before maybe they were way more tilted towards work and they get to revisit that. I think to my mind that gives those of us in leadership positions a chance to revisit that with our communities, with our teams, wherever they are and say, okay, how do we achieve all that we want to achieve and yet take the learnings of the past year and really build them into our new ways of being.
Nathalie: Actually let’s dig in a bit more to the theme of leadership because that’s something that I know that you’re very connected with. I think at the moment, it’s especially important to have leaders that model the kind of values and resilience that we’re aspiring to and working towards. With your experience maybe as a board member, working with people in positions of authority and leadership, what are some of the ways that you feel are most effective in terms of creating change and establishing cultures that support people’s integration and wellbeing?
Tara: Well, the most important thing prior to this, through this and after this, is to create very high-trust organizations and very high trust networks. I think that one thing that has become quite clear through the pandemic is that the people who have been in many ways most successful, have built relationships of trust over time, before we went into this. And they were able to use those networks throughout – even though they were at a distance, and even though they weren’t establishing new relationships – and they need to be refreshed. we need to expand our spheres of people we like to work with, people we like to be in high trust relationships with, because it allows us to do extraordinary things. It allows us to have engagements, whether it’s some of the leaders I’ve talked to or world leaders working on conversations across countries.
Some of it is people within teams, within a company. Some of it is organizations working on trying to be responsive to COVID recovery and vaccine delivery. In all of those cases, having people, not technology, not business processes, not contracts – those are not the thing that’s important. The thing that’s important is these high-trust relationships and our high-humanity. Really bringing our whole self to the party. After that we can use the technology or use the processes, but before that, we don’t have anything.
Nathalie: When you talk about high trust relationships, I’d like to unpack that a bit more because it’s such an interesting concept, and I think so many people now are talking about the use of technology, how people have adopted it, how it means that we can now automate a lot of issues that we had before. So dealing with HR considerations, how to hire people and all the rest of it, what does it mean to look at building a high trust relationships? What are some of the qualities that characterize that for you?
Tara: Some of the critical qualities in a high trust relationship is that you agree on what a good outcome is. You have confidence in each other that you are striving for a positive common goal. That you’re not in conflict in what the goal is, and that as things go wrong, as they always will, you give each other the space and grace to think out loud together about it. That you approach each other with a real sense of goodwill, a real sense of optimism and possibility. And that often comes from spending some time together, a quality time. It can be at a distance, but if you’re going to do it at a distance and it really needs to be one-on-one. You really need to understand how the person thinks, they need to understand how you think and that you have agreed approaches for moving forward together.
You need to build a lattice out of relationships with people who trust each other, so when you’re moving forward quickly, everyone who comes to the group has their entire lattice, their entire community of people that are talented and are in different spheres and who bring that high trust together. It lets you build very complex things very quickly, because you’re not spending all of your time in a defensive stance. You’re spending it in an innovation stance, in a forward moving stance, in a progressive stance.
Nathalie: A lot of businesses have had to change the ways in which they reach out to their employees. For instance, when there’s been the need to work from home. So being able to be more flexible opening conversations, to make sure there’s some sense of context, to ask how people are. Using technology to support the work of humans so that you can end up providing better customer service for instance. There’s all of these different things that I’ve seen in terms of behavior in the past year that businesses have engaged in that has changed how we do business. And so I wonder if you think that businesses in general are starting to think differently about what’s important, if they’re different things, if, for instance, wellbeing of their employees is more important than before? Or as you mentioned with a high trust, if there’s more of an emphasis on culture and relationship? Or whether it’s just my utopian ideal thinking, yes, I want to see this trend? What do you think? Are we seeing a trend in terms of what businesses prioritize before the pandemic and maybe what they’re prioritizing now?
Tara: Well, I think that it’s always important to not talk about businesses, but talk about business leadership because there is no such thing as a business. There is only people formed together to create a company or to create a business. And so it’s very dependent on what a organization or business’s leadership is looking for in companies where businesses have realized how critically dependent they are on people’s desire and willingness to be part of a team at a distance, I believe that they will continue to experiment and explore ways of bringing their whole selves. People bringing their whole selves to that business understanding. And that it’ll allow us to move back from having sort of a more rigid frame between work and home, and understanding that people are in their totality.
I think businesses that are more reliant on people being together. If you think about healthcare in hospitals or manufacturing places where it’s required for people to come together, maybe they won’t have gone through that transition as well. Maybe they will have a very different set of transitions. They will realize how critical it is to care for the wellbeing of their teams in those environments that they’re in, really understand what that looks like. So I think it’s very hard to talk about business in general. It’s important to talk about businesses in specific.
Nathalie: I want to ask a little bit more towards the direction of innovation, because I know that you are very involved in innovation. Looking through that lens, what do you think are some of the biggest risks and opportunities that we’re seeing? You can take this in any direction that you want.
Tara: I think that we are going to see a explosion of innovation around climate change, and how we move forward in climate. There have been over the last 20 years, push and pull back and forth between innovation there. Some things that worked, some things didn’t work. People got excited. People backed away when it wasn’t successful. But I think that we have now moved to a phase where it will just be going forward. There’ll be a lot of experimentation because we will continue as always in innovation to have things that work and don’t work. But I don’t think it will rock backwards to a point where we’re not consistently moving forward. So much energy, so much mental talent in the last 20 years has been used towards advertising technology that that brain power can be unleashed towards way more interesting problems.
The use of that brain power towards the problems of how we solve things in climate, how we thwart future pandemics, how we revisit energy, how we revisit infrastructure, how we revisit learning, and community, and healthcare broadly will start to come about. I think that we’ve reached a maturity in that other area and that as more technology policy comes in, that makes it less likely that all the effort will be spent there. The more can be spent on much better innovations and encouraging people who have the desire and wherewithal to innovate and create to move into these new areas.
Nathalie: It is exciting. I saw today, obviously this is going to be slightly dated by the time this interview comes out, an image of… it was a CGI image of the Amazon headquarters that’s being built, which basically looks like a shiny poop emoji, but with loads of trees integrated into it. It was one of these things that I kind of thought, that’s a really interesting use of technology to innovate architecture and the spaces we inhabit and that we work in. The fact that that might now start to become a signifier of status and authority that maybe our priorities and values have shifted, so that with the innovations that we’re seeing, as you’ve described, move into the climate space, businesses that are in a position of financial power may start to adopt these practices – so, green architecture or other kinds of technologies – in order to assert their moral power.
Tara: I think that some of them will because if they want to be alluring to very talented people, very talented people want to be in places that are thinking forward, and moving fast, and are excited about the future, and are building places that are healthy for them. As we go back to work environments that question’s going to come up a lot. There’s been great research on what makes for a healthy building, what makes for a good environment, what makes build spaces appropriate for the future. I think that companies who have the wherewithal to do that, and those will be incented by new policies around the globe. I think we’re going to see a very time for built spaces and built environments.
Again, this is a place where people who have maybe used their talent in a different direction will start to say, “Well, what does it look like to design these things? How can I shift my career and my thinking, my leadership, my organization, towards the things we will be building?”
Nathalie: And in terms of the technological side of things, one of the areas that I find very interesting, especially off the back of the mass adoption of video conferencing platforms and apps, even among older people who maybe didn’t use or want to use video conferencing tools before. One of the things I’m excited by is the possibility for integrating more virtual reality and augmented reality tools into the ways in which we communicate and work with one another. Is there a specific way in which you imagine that would work best? So some sort of hybrid between technological tools and in-person high trust environments? Can these to stitch together well, or do you foresee certain challenges with that?
Tara: I think there’ll be great experimentation in how we expand and view our space. It’s in such an early stage. And again, a little bit like the technologies around climate, AR and VR has rocked back and forth. Anybody who’s paid any attention to it has seen it sort of, now is the time and then it goes away and then they say now is the time and it goes away. So the jury is always out on it. Is it the time? Sometimes it’s the time for, for novelty, and sometimes it really comes forward. It may be that this is the time it comes forward because our closest in technology, our phones and other things have significantly more capacity. When we see it move from both novelty or industrial use, and when, I mean industrial use, I mean, using it for training in manufacturing or medicine even, you’ll start to see it move forward because those are places where there’s a real business model for it.
I’ve been in conversations lately with folks who are thinking about using it for aging in place. How can it be used to augment an environment to keep older adults in their home for the entirety of their life, to set reminders for them to do things that maybe they wouldn’t remember quite as easily, or to increase their connection with their community and their family who may be further away. I think the jury is still out. I am enthusiastic about it. I think when we ultimately get there, it’s going to be wicked fun, but I would say let’s keep watching.
Nathalie: Yeah. In my mind, I just had this wonderful idea of, I don’t know, just being able to immerse myself in completely different environments and meet up with a friend on the other side of the world for a virtual cup of tea somewhere, that’s something that you wouldn’t be able to replicate from what we experience on earth, but like a Star Trek vision of an alien landscape from someone’s imagination.
Tara: I think that interestingly much of that was written about in the cyberpunk literature. It was this sort of future history, a precursor to where we might go. We haven’t seen it yet. And frequently those desires need to wait until the computational capability moves forward far enough, or the communications ability moves further forward far enough. And we’re starting to get to the point where that’s more possible and not in more of a novelty environment, but in a sort of tangible, real environment.
Nathalie: Thinking about the advances that we’re seeing across the whole board in the technological space. I think a lot of people are justifiably concerned about the future of automation and the impact this will have on people’s jobs. A lot of talk is being had about re-skilling and green economies and ways in which you might skill people up so that they can secure their future professional lives. From your perspective, and you’ve touched on this with a high trust theme, but what are some of the other qualities that we bring that complement technology or that technology cannot provide?
Tara: Well, I often talk that we are moving into a cycle that requires three things: high technology with high quality and high humanity – and that intersection of the three is what makes things great. The technology by itself without quality or humanity is quite limited. People often say, bring in the technology to solve the problem, and then they forget that those other two pieces are actually what the solution needs to be extraordinary. We have under-invested in those other two. We have gotten to a point where we talked a lot about STEM and we forget that the humanities and the arts and our ability to lock into our creative self, our ethical self, our philosophical self is where the design comes from. And as much as we may get excited about machine learning and the advances, those advances will come from people being more creative.
The quality component is equally as critical. We under invest in quality across the board. Whether it’s truly looking at the technology quality, like is our software good enough? Are we looking at the software, going into our planes and our cars, our environments, our media, our advertising. Many of the policy debates come because there hasn’t been enough conversation about quality. But quality also comes in the form of usability. Space, you know well, not only the …. does it enrich? Can people use it? Is it effective? Is it making both the person who’s using it better, and the society they’re in better? These are questions of quality. Those two areas, humidity and quality are deeply under invested in.
Nathalie: Why do you think they are under invested in and undervalued?
Tara: I think we go through cycles of excitement. I think those of us who are in Silicon Valley who are inventors and creators have often taken the stance of let’s create it and break things and move things into the market as fast as possible. That’s terrific. As a person who creates things, I’ve always appreciated the ability to move fast. But we’re at a point now where technology is like air. It’s so embedded in everything we do, that if we don’t put checks on it it’s … It’s more like thinking about technology as having environmental impact statements of quality. How is it impacting our environment? It’s not a one-off piece of technology that won’t affect all the other parts of the infrastructure.
I always find it interesting that the markets think that there’s a separate segment called technology. Well, the reality is all the companies that are calling technology are either advertising companies, media companies, retail companies. There are very few pure technology companies unless they’re making chips or network devices. We haven’t really come to grips with the fact that technology is not a segment, technology is everything. And then once you realize it’s everywhere, you look at those other pieces and say, this is what we’re missing. We haven’t revisited the conversation about how it fits in with people and how it fits in, in a quality way, so that we’re not running into problems. And we’re not asking our technology companies to invest enough.
Everybody who’s making product can be investing in those areas of quality and humanity. Our political leaders can be thinking about it quite differently that way. Instead of, technology is great and we here to regulate it. Technology is in everything. How do we increase its quality and increase its ability to make people great?
Nathalie: I think speaking to that, there’s also the question of who it is that designs or contributes to the design of the technology that we use that we work with. And of course there are these debates about diversity and inclusion. The idea that if we only have a small proportion of people represented in the technology that’s created, then we’re actually missing out on a huge breadth of experience, desires, qualities that otherwise you might have, if we harness the richness of the whole of, of all people. I guess I’m kind of asking how do we bring everyone in together to make sure that the tech that we use is of the highest quality and richness? How do we bring everyone into that vision to create technology that’s going to serve to its full potential?
Tara: Great things come when you have people who have lots of perspective and point of view coming together. If you really want to make excellent products, and services, and policies, and designs, whatever it is you’re building, having many points of view coming together to participate in that, to bring their richness of experience, to bring their perspective is critical to making great things. If a team does not have that, if a company doesn’t have that, their products and services and policies and designs are impoverished. They are limited by the point of view of a small group. My point of view is to encourage them to make great things. And when recruiting, and hiring, and bringing people in ask the question, do we have enough perspective in our current team? Do we have enough perspective to make great things? And that will open the aperture to having many more voices, instead of looking for bringing people into your team by skills requirement. Skills can be taught, perspective is what you bring to the party.
Nathalie: Yeah. I think it’s a really lovely way to reframe what it is that’s actually important. So with the interviews that you engage in and the conversations that you have, especially with leaders and board members, is there a question that you wish people would ask you that they haven’t yet?
Tara: I think it’s not so much about a question that they ask me, but when people come together in groups, whether we’re in board meetings or other discussions, I think always starting from the perspective of how can be extraordinarily better, is the right question. It’s easy to get bogged down in the problem of the moment. I think about it as the weather, the weather of the moment or the numbers of the weather of the moment. That’s not the job of leadership. That the job of leadership is to think about how to be extraordinarily better.
Nathalie: To end with two final questions, what kind of world do you want to build?
Tara: I want to build things, design things, be in organizations that really help unlock people’s spirit of invention and creativity that I myself am making them, but also that the organizations I’m involved with create new and better ideas. And the only way to do that is to have all of the people working together to create new and better ideas. So is each person their most possible? Is each person their most inspired? Are you really helping lift up folks and make them as extraordinary as they can be?
Nathalie: If there were something that you could suggest to start us on the road to getting there, what one or two things might you offer?
Tara: Well, as simple as it may sound. I think that if everyone can take a walk every day, it would go a long way to enhance their creativity. I think that during this pandemic, when we’ve been allowed out of our house, and we’ve been allowed to take walks, it’s a reminder for everyone that walking is the first place to know your own mind and to think about things you want to create and you want to build.