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 their 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 startling — 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. Transformations 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.