In this Law Technology Now episode with host Ralph Baxter, Ralph welcomes Heidi Gardner to talk about her research into collaboration and her work furthering the concept of Smart Collaboration. Heidi defines the meaning of Smart Collaboration, and gives her thoughts on the impacts COVID-19 is having on collaboration throughout the industry. She also discusses her time at Harvard Law School, how she developed a passion for studying collaboration, and why she’s devoted her career to improving how we work together.
Heidi Gardner is the distinguished fellow & lecturer on law at Harvard Law School.
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Law Technology Now
Smart Collaboration in the Time of COVID
Ralph Baxter: Welcome to Law Technology Now. I am Ralph Baxter and I will be your host for this episode. This is my eighth episode as co-host of the show.
My guest today is Heidi Gardner. Heidi is one of the world’s foremost authorities in collaboration especially as it relates to lawyers and other professionals in doing their work. Heidi and I are going to talk today about collaboration in the context of this unique time we find ourselves in with the coronavirus crisis. We’re recording the episode remotely, normally we like to do them in-person, but of course in today’s world we can’t. Heidi is sheltering-in-place in New Hampshire and I am sheltering-in-place in West Virginia.
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So Heidi Gardner has spent the last 12 years at Harvard University. First, on the faculty of the Harvard Business School and then to the Harvard Law School where she now serves as the Distinguished Fellow at Harvard’s Center on the legal profession and as Chair of the Harvard Law School’s executive programs.
For the last several years Heidi has focused much of her work on studying, teaching and writing about collaboration. How it works and how it can work better. Heidi brings to her work a grounding in the real world and not everyone who studies the subject has lived it but Heidi has.
She spent several years working at Procter & Gamble and then several years at McKinsey & Company and has collaborated herself, has seen it work, seen situations in which it could work better and all of that experience informs her views of collaboration.
In 2016, Heidi published a groundbreaking book. ‘Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed in Breaking Down Silos’. This turned out to be a best-selling book and beyond that it is a book that has had real influence on how professional service firms think about collaboration as a way to make their service and the careers of their people better.
Heidi has also become one of the most sought-after speakers for audiences that are focused on legal services and other professional services. If you ever have a chance to hear Heidi talk or to participate in a session she is leading, you should take it because she’s as good as it gets.
And finally, I wanted to share with you that Heidi has founded her own firm now, an advisory and research firm Gardner and Company.
Welcome to Law Technology Now, Heidi.
Heidi Gardner: Ralph, thanks so much for inviting me.
Ralph Baxter: So let me just start by asking you how you and your family are doing up there in New Hampshire, isolating during this virus crisis?
Heidi Gardner: “Isolation” is absolutely the word of the day. We are in the midst of the forest of the mountains of New Hampshire. Our closest neighbors are moose and porcupines and so we’re feeling pretty safe and feel incredibly blessed to have a place like this to retreat to.
Ralph Baxter: I heard someone recently say — someone from your part of the country where you are now that a way to figure out if you’re adequately social distancing, it’s about the size of a moose.
Heidi Gardner: Fair enough. I think that’s a good local measure.
Ralph Baxter: Right, that’s not a reference I’ll be able to use but I guess you can in New Hampshire, and in Maine and so on.
Well, Heidi, as I said, I’ve asked you to join us today to share with our audience insights and recommendations that you have drawing on your research and experience with collaboration. So what I’d like to do is really just step through it. How did you get into this as a focus for your work? What is collaboration and what’s smart collaboration, and then take that into the practical setting starting with smart collaboration in the context of a crisis in general and then getting into the heart of this one that is so truly unique.
So let’s start. How did you decide to focus your research and career on collaboration?
Heidi Gardner: Well, as you mentioned, Ralph, my background is in the “real world” and I had the opportunity to lead lots of different kinds of teams, first at Procter & Gamble and then at McKinsey, and my observation as a team leader is that we had very high variability in terms of our output. So even when, say at McKinsey, we had an incredibly diverse team, diverse in the sense of background. We might have an astrophysicist, and a concert pianist, and somebody with a military background and a couple of MBAs on the team. Lots of different kinds of perspectives and knowledge bases, and sometimes we use that to the full advantage to create an innovative, highly useful practical solution that was truly comprehensive, and that was the ideal, and then there were the other times. When I felt like, we came up with a solution that was the sum of its parts, but perhaps nothing more, nothing magical, and as the leader of a team, like this, I became obsessed with trying to understand the difference between those outcomes, when is it and why is it that some teams are so much more effective than others at using the full complement of expertise that the members bring to the table?
And at McKinsey, I was so busy solving the clients’ problems that I didn’t really look internally to study our own teams and decided to go back and truly study that in a proper academic, empirical way and I left McKinsey to do my dissertation in London Business School and at that point re-entered academia and have had what I hope is a true blend of the nerdy, kind of pointy-headed academic perspective on this, really hard course science and math behind it, and making it as practical as possible so we can bring those insights back to people who can use them.
Ralph Baxter: Yeah, as you say that, it touches on one of the reasons I think that you are so successful in reaching audiences because you do bring that blend. So often people are advising on subjects but they don’t have the real data, and so they’re working off of anecdotal experience, which is valuable, but you have bring that data and it comes through in your presentations, but it’s also true that often people have a lot of data but don’t know how it really works in the real world.
You touched on something there and it’s one of a couple of things I want to draw out as we talk that I want to note, and that is, as you describe the setting in your work life, there were these diverse teams, sometimes the organization would take advantage of them and sometimes not.
But there’s a piece there that is vital for law firms to be more focused on, which is diverse teams, and not just diverse by gender or other dimension of that kind, but diverse by background, which is what you were talking about. Different experiences, different levels of expertise, and that made a more capable, more complete team; I think is what you’re saying.
Heidi Gardner: Absolutely. So when we look at what’s happening in the world and this could not be a more important time to think about this. We’ve got two completely countervailing trends and these trends have been in place for more than a decade but we see them just full force crashing into each other right now.
The first of those trends is expertise specialization. So lawyers like virtually every other kind of knowledge-based professional have become more-and-more specialized over time and so they are not just an IP lawyer, they are an IP lawyer for a certain type of IP law in a particular jurisdiction, in a particular kind of industry and so forth and that allows the lawyer to be an incredibly deep expert, but at the same time their expertise is relatively narrow, specialized, and focused, and at the same time and the coronavirus situation right now is an incredible example of this.
The problems are so incredibly complicated and multidisciplinary, and so you have these issues anything worth thinking about today is multifaceted and requires these highly specialized experts to come together and integrate their expertise to create more holistic practical solutions to these complicated problems, and that’s what we mean by Smart Collaboration, and that’s why it’s so critical that law firms for example and legal departments have an array of different kinds of experts that they can draw on, so that they are able to tackle more complicated problems collectively than any of those incredibly smart individuals could do on their own.
Ralph Baxter: Right. So today we’re going to talk about how you make that happen, but one of the things that kind of — that interaction, that drawing, the benefit from the diverse team, but one of the issues that people who run legal services organizations, law firms and others need to stay focused on, is the need to do something that you mentioned as you just said that to assemble teams that have more perspectives than just law for one thing, but more perspectives than just law of this kind and law of that kind, but a broader set.
All right, so you got into this study and partly based on your experience at Procter & Gamble, McKinsey, and with McKinsey clients of course, because McKinsey gave you a chance to see a lot of businesses in operation, and you saw that they weren’t always taking full advantage.
So, walk us through how you proceeded to the idea of smart collaboration?
Heidi K. Gardner: So when I went back to academia, I had studied, my first Masters, going to School of Economics, I was living in London, I had lived in Johannesburg as well with McKinsey, and decided to stay in London for my PhD.
And so I went to London Business School and pursued a PhD in Organizational Behavior and there I did a lot of empirical work, I studied a lot of Statistics and the research methodology to help us take a very data-driven approach to this study of teamwork and its outcomes.
And initially, I was looking at client service teams. So I was studying accounting, strategy, law firms, where they would bring teams together to actually serve the client.
And as I got my dissertation and I went on the faculty at Harvard Business School, I was teaching executives there about the findings for client service teams, and over lunch one day one of the executive participants sparked a conversation that went something like this, he said, I fully appreciate how difficult it is to get any given team to use the full complement of their member’s knowledge, but when you think about say a key account team in an accounting firm. You’ve got the partner, you’ve got the senior manager, you’ve got some associates, there’s sort of a mini hierarchy within each of these teams and people know their role and their place and how to interact. He said, that’s hard enough, but think about trying to get the head of each of those mini pyramids to work together.
He said, we’ve got high ego, high power, autonomous people choosing whether they work in their own silo as a partner or whether they team up with other equally powerful knowledgeable experts. He said, that’s the real problem I’m facing in my firm.
And I decided to pursue that line of research. What happens when people have power to decide how to work together, do they stay in their own silo, do they opt to be sort of the king of a small island or more of a team player in a much broader sphere? And when you start to bring all of those dynamics into play, that brought me into this realm of collaboration and law firms are a brilliant exemplar of the kind of environment where people often have the choice of how to operate, and through our research we’ve been able to pinpoint statistically, empirically, what some of the outcomes are of those choices.
Ralph Baxter: One other observation I’d like to make for our listeners, if you’re at the beginning of your career and you’re thinking how do I navigate this, how do I find the area of my profession that will be fulfilling to me, think about what Heidi just described.
So she was pursuing a career and she found a subject matter that really excited her, and you can hear it in her voice and if you could see her on Zoom you’d see it that this was something she found compelling and as she worked through it — I’m filling in some blanks for you, but I think this is I know enough to know this is right, as she worked through it, she found it rewarding, she found there was a way for her to make a contribution that hadn’t been made by others, and so she has now based a lot of her current career on this subject, which is mission-critical.
I’ll share with you one anecdote. Early on when I was at Orrick, we hired a wonderful marketing director and she wasn’t there very long and then she resigned. So I went — I chatted with her about why she was leaving and she told me she had found the situation challenging. She said, you all talk about teamwork, but if you’re on a team it’s a golf team, and meaning by that, that you’re all pursuing your individual objectives instead of the collective, and it really left an impression on me and did for the rest of my time in leadership at Orrick to make sure that we were doing, we didn’t have the benefit of Heidi Gardner then, but doing what you proposed.
So what is Smart Collaboration? How is Smart Collaboration different from garden-variety collaboration?
Heidi K. Gardner: We intentionally keep using the term “Smart Collaboration” to distinguish this from other terms that often get bandied about that people think are similar and they have the right to use the terminology as they wish, but when we talk about Smart Collaboration, it is much more than collegiality.
It’s not just that people enjoy working together or get along well together, that can be a helpful component of Smart Collaboration but it’s certainly not what helps you solve the toughest problems, and it’s certainly not what clients are willing to pay for.
And so I think it’s crucial for us to think about Smart Collaboration as a very intentional act of bringing together exactly the right kind of experts who are able to integrate that expertise into a more holistic solution to tackle these complex problems that none of those highly specialized experts could do on their own. That’s what we mean by Smart Collaboration.
And if I dare take a slight tangent on this, I’d like to go down a bit of a path to distinguish Smart Collaboration from another term that is used frequently often in the law firm context by leaders who are imploring their partners to do something called Cross-selling.
Ralph Baxter: Great.
Heidi K. Gardner: That’s a tough one. Cross-selling is something that in my research, I try very hard to distinguish from Smart Collaboration, because importantly we should keep clients at the forefront of our thinking at all times and generally clients hate to be cross-sold, they feel like it’s a pretty self-serving action that partners engage in to push services at the client, whereas when clients feel like lawyers are truly collaborating, it’s on the house of the client, it’s for their benefit, it’s in order to tackle through proactive communications and a lot of effort, all of these complicated problems.
And so Smart Collaboration really keeps the client problems front of mind and make sure that whoever is leading the charge is bringing in the right kinds of experts wherever they sit in the firm and bringing them at the right time and with the right level.
Ralph Baxter: I’m hearing you say two things, and I want to talk about this cross-selling one more moment, but two things; one, Smart Collaboration is deliberate, it’s mindful, part of what you do, just as you filed your briefs on time and you have other elements of the routine of how you do things, one of them is to think about how might we better use the broader team that we have at our disposal, it’s mindful.
And then the other is that when you’re going to do that in the context of serving a client, you need to be sincerely doing it in order to advance the interests of the client, not just because you want to be collegial or something like that or because you’re trying to sell one of your partners to the client.
Heidi K. Gardner: A 100% Ralph, absolutely.
Ralph Baxter: Right.
Heidi K. Gardner: Those are both essential. What I will say and this is — maybe Smart Collaboration 2.0 is that it is not simply responsiveness. I see and — and if I can pick on M&A lawyers for a bit right now, I’ll see these M&A lawyers who sort of hear this spiel of mine and they thump their chest and they say, I’m brilliant at this, in every transaction I bring in tax and antitrust and…
And I say, okay, well that’s Client Service 101. You’re being responsive to your client. Frankly, if you didn’t bring in those experts it might be malpractice. Nobody gets a Gold Star for avoiding malpractice. You get a Gold Star by thinking like you said, intentionally, deliberately, ahead of time what kinds of experts might be necessary for this problem and then sometimes pulling that team together, investing in the client relationship enough that you engage with partners who have very different points of view to say, what is this client going to need, how do we learn from what we did at a client in the same industry or even across industries, adjacent industries, that will help the client in ways that they don’t even know to ask for yet.
And that proactivity is what truly distinguishes a highly collaborative firm from one that’s nearly responsive.
Ralph Baxter: Right. I think we’ve laid a foundation here for talking about the way these ideas apply in the context of this crisis. And before we turn to that, let’s take a break and one more time hear from our sponsors.
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Ralph Baxter: So Heidi, let’s turn now to talking about smart collaboration, deliberate collaboration in the context of this coronavirus crisis. As I said as we teed this subject up, part of that is because collaboration will operate differently in a crisis and part of it is because this circumstance is truly unique.
So can you just start walking us through some of your thoughts about collaboration in this context?
Heidi K. Gardner: One thing I think we have to remember Ralph is that we are not just sheltering in place and working remotely, we are trying to do that in the midst of an incredibly anxiety-producing crisis. It’s not even just a financial crisis, it’s a health crisis. And you put all of these elements together and it does warrant the word you gave it, unique.
In this situation we are thinking about what does the client need and what does our team need and bringing those together is the essence of what it takes to truly collaborate.
One thing I would like to highlight, which I am not hearing enough people talk about right now, is the effects of these circumstances on diversity. It’s not enough just to have a diverse team, and again, we are not just talking about demographic diversity or socioeconomic diversity or age diversity, we are talking about thought diversity. It’s not enough just to say we have got lots of different kinds of experts on our team, how do we make sure that we are using them to their full potential.
And what science tells us is in circumstances like we are in right now people are atomized, the organization is broken down into its smallest units, everyone is isolated and there is a lot of stress involved. Under these circumstances some kinds of people more than others are likely to be left out of the critical conversations.
So think about a team where you have individuals, a core group who are somewhat similar to one another perhaps because of demographics or the length of tenure at that firm or so forth and then there are some people on the outside, on the fringe of that team. When the core group is thinking about whom to connect with, whom to give the next juicy piece of work to, whom to check in on, on a social sense and make sure they are doing okay in the crisis, the usual suspects, the ones who leap to mind are the ones who are going to be more similar to those and people on the fringes are more likely to be left out.
If we thought this current situation was only going to last for a week or two, that might be a mere blip that gets taken care of once we get back to whatever the next normal looks like. This crisis is stretching on and we have to be incredibly mindful about how we are drawing on the full range of experts and making sure that nobody is left out of the conversation unintentionally, because those could have long-term consequences.
So that’s the first thing I wanted to say is this impact on diversity and the use of different kinds of expertise based on our stress and anxiety.
Ralph Baxter: Right. Just to go over this quickly, you started with what does the client need and what does your team need in order to deliver what the client needs and it can’t be overstated that all of this turns on a sincere dedication to the clients’ interest. And back to your M&A analogy, not doing it simply because that’s the way we have done the last 10 deals, but doing it the way that is necessary in this deal, for this client, and their considerations.
The diversity you are talking about as you say is not demographic diversity; it’s diversity of thought, perspective, those kinds of things to make a more robust value proposition and what you offer. In this setting not only are some people further from the center, but they also — nobody is in the same building with you, you are no longer down the hall and so even more here it requires that kind of attention.
Heidi K. Gardner: Well, you brought the client back into this and it’s critical that we think about how do you maintain faster, even deepened client relationships despite the current situation and right now we know that GCs, in-house legal departments are more crunched than ever, but this is an opportunity for them to really I would say reassume some of the leadership roles that they have either abdicated or have been taken away from them in the past.
Right now the general counsel has the potential to have a seat at the strategy table, a seat at the board table and influence like perhaps at no time in recent memory. And every lawyer in every outside firm has got to be thinking how do I turn my GC into a hero, how do I equip them with the knowledge and the insights and the support to allow them to proactively address the executive team, the board with insights that are crucial, right now, customized to their business situation, their commercial context. This is not the time to be spamming clients with a whole bunch of generic newsletters and force majeure information, this is the time to pick up the phone and talk to clients and ask what they are going through, provide them a nugget of insight that you think they may have missed because they are running full steam ahead and trapped somewhat probably in the silo of their own corporation or bank or entity.
Talk to your partners, this is my advice to lawyers, talk to your partners, find out what they are understanding from their clients. If you have got a partner in Hong Kong, figure out what’s happening when they have moved in a different place in the curve. If you are talking to somebody in a different industry, what do you know from that industry that you can bring as a small gift to your GC, a gift of insight that will help them be much more effective in the role that they are playing right now. Picking up the phone, having that personal conversation, offering a nugget of wisdom and insight, that is going to go an incredibly long way toward deepening relationships.
Ralph Baxter: So that is collaboration with your client, collaboration beyond your firm, and as with the other things that you have discussed so far, this is grounded in a sincere interest to help the client pursue its objectives or solve its problems. One of the challenges that anyone in business today has relating to generating business for the future is the concern that things — the music has kind of stopped for a while and people aren’t coming to you in the way that they did; sometimes they are coming to you more, and people are inclined to try to develop business.
But you are not talking about developing business, what you are talking about will have that effect, but that’s not what you are talking about, you are talking about thinking in the way that you just described, not in the interest of how might I get myself noticed by the client, but how might I help my client do better, do it for its own sake and the client will perceive that, just as you said about cross-selling, the client gets it when you are cross-selling and doesn’t like it. The client will get it when you reach out to them sincerely trying to help them.
Heidi K. Gardner: I think it’s so important for people to remember that you don’t aim for revenues and profits, you aim for a delighted client who knows that you are on their side and the revenues and profits are the inevitable benefit that derives from that. If you are very tactically, transactionally, trying to game the system and squeeze money out, everyone can see right through that, and that might work for a short time but we know that the most successful lawyers and the most successful firms are the ones that have a true service mentality and they benefit enormously from a differentiated position in the market, from much more loyal clients and from being a strategic partner as opposed to a mere instruction taker.
Ralph Baxter: That’s right, and you see it whenever you bring to mind the people that you admire in your profession, in whatever you do, whether it’s public interest law or accounting, whatever you do in professional service, you see it, the ones that are most in demand are the ones who clients believe are really, A, trying to help them; and B, will be of value.
So let’s turn to a specific problem that’s presented here. If you are in legal service, you have teams that previously worked somewhere in proximity to each other and now they don’t, they are working remotely, suddenly really a total remote workforce, what are some thoughts you have for the people who have to lead and manage those teams in this period?
Heidi K. Gardner: First I would say know thyself. So we understand that under this kind of pressurized work situation, psychologists call it reverting to central tendencies. In other words, whatever behavior comes most naturally to us, we are very likely to go to the extreme version of that.
So somebody who normally wants to have a high degree of control over the situation is going to become an absolute control freak in this situation and that can really become dysfunctional when taken to the extreme. So my first piece of advice is really take a step back and figure out who you are.
Now, with my team at Gardner & Co, which actually stands for Gardner & Collaborators, so Gardner & Co has developed a psychometric test to help people understand where they are on seven dimensions of smart collaboration and we encourage people to really get a strong picture of your natural tendencies because those are going to come roaring to the front in a situation like this. After you have a good grasp of how you normally behave, what we are saying is be mindful about how you deploy those behaviors.
So if you are a very trusting individual normally, that’s going to be helpful in this situation, you don’t feel like you need to have somebody prove that they are sitting at their desk or you can see them to know that they are actually doing work and putting in the effort.
Also make sure if you are highly trusting however that you are not overly trusting, in the sense that you feel like you can just keep throwing work at people and when you don’t see them drowning, you trust that they will raise their hand and ask for advice.
Again, it’s being incredibly mindful about how you choose to behave in the virtual work environment, because overdoing any tendency can have repercussions that are unintended at this point. And if you don’t have a good handle on this, it’s really helpful to have a trusted colleague you can turn to and sort of be your accountability partner for whether you are being as effective as you think you would be or as you would like to be.
Ralph Baxter: So the advice to know yourself and think about your orientation to collaborate or not is the kind of thing that hearing it from some people would be just sort of kind of window dressing. This is quite real. This is part and parcel of the idea that for collaboration to be smart in the way that you write, it has to be deliberate. You have to really think about the settings.
So part of that setting is the needs of the client, the realities of the circumstance, but part of it is who you are and how you interact with people, at which in this setting, because the challenge is different than just walking into someone’s room or bringing everybody together in a conference room, is all the more important, so you really mean this. This isn’t just a parlor game, this is something that you really should do.
So one of the other characteristics I wanted to address is this. The people that you are leading or managing now find themselves in genuinely deeply anxiety-producing moment. They are worried about their health, they are worried about their parents’ health, they are worried about their income, their job, no matter what. They know some companies are not going to do as well as they would like. What thoughts do you have for collaboration and recognizing that that’s where the team is, sitting in their kitchen with their pet and their child?
Heidi K. Gardner: There are a couple of things and maybe I can slightly metaphorically draw on the idea of heads and hearts at this point. You need to align people’s heads. In other words, make sure that the effort that they are putting in is thoughtful around the right priorities. Be incredibly deliberate. Be incredibly mindful about the priorities that people are undertaking. Overinvest in communicating about what it is that the team is trying to accomplish collectively and then making sure people individually know that the role that they are playing is essential and how that fits in. You can’t go too far in explicating what the priorities are and the objectives and clarifying of goals and the roles. So that’s kind of the head, you know, getting people’s heads aligned.
There is a hearts element to this as well. As you just mentioned, people are going through a lot right now, ranging from inconveniences and time pressure, to much more and much worse than that. It’s time for compassion. It’s time for people to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
If we step on a land mine and we make an assumption about somebody, we say something that is unintended or taken as a slant or we do leave somebody out inadvertently, let’s own up to it and do what we can to rectify the situation.
If you are on the receiving end of it, give somebody the benefit of the doubt, chances are it was stress that made them do that or lack of sleep, and gently call it out. Hold people to account for good behavior, give them feedback, helps them learn from mistakes. But this is a time when we genuinely need to have each other’s backs and there is not too much compassion to go around.
I think trying to be genuinely thoughtful about how other people are doing and the circumstances they are facing, it’s going to go a long way and I dare say people will remember the little things coming out the other end. The more we can do to harness our small deeds and foster trust and supportive relationships, that’s going to help us get stronger and come through faster.
Ralph Baxter: That is so helpful Heidi and it goes through everything about the relationships of people in professional service firms today, collaboration and everything else. Thank you so much for joining us today. This I am sure was very helpful to all of our listeners as they grapple with continuing to serve clients and operate professional service firm, businesses and organizations through this time.
You hit on some things here that are vital as I say in all times, but particularly here, being deliberate and thoughtful. Collaboration doesn’t just happen, you have to work at it, that’s part of what you learned from the very beginning of your experiences at Procter & Gamble and McKinsey. And you have to be sincere about the objectives.
But what you have said here at the end is another — are some ideas that people often take lightly, but they really are mission critical, and that is paying attention both to the heads and the hearts of your people, not just what they think, but how they feel, especially at this time. And then being compassionate about it, right, having that in mind but just with the same sincerity you have to have about the objectives of the clients, you need to operate with a sincere interest in how that person is doing in her or his changed circumstance.
I am sure this was very valuable to our listeners and I really appreciate your being here. And I was quite sincere also when I said earlier, if you get a chance to hear Heidi Gardner talk or to see her in action, you should take it.
And thank all of you for listening. If you liked what you heard today, please rate us on Spotify or Google or wherever you get your podcasts.
And until next time, this is Ralph Baxter for Law Technology Now.
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