It’s Not Right vs. Left, It’s Old vs. New

“In Washington DC, it’s not right vs. left, it’s old vs. new” – Senator Michael Bennet

I’ve been thinking about this since I heard it last Sunday evening in a conversation with FCC Chair Tom Wheeler. I was part of a fascinating private group discussion with him and came away with a lot of respect for him and appreciation for how he approaches things. While I’m on a year hiatus from political stuff, I was intrigued by the opportunity to meet with him given my close relationship with Phil Weiser (CU Law Dean), and Phil’s deep respect for Tom.

In the midst of the conversation, this line from Michael Bennet, one of our Colorado Senators, popped out.

Michael’s statement  rang true with me. But it’s not just in Washington, it’s everywhere. This is the classic incumbent vs. innovator challenge and we are seeing it play out aggressively across all industries and geographies as the machines, especially the software in the machines, have the impact on society that many of us have been anticipating and investing in for a long time.

The confusion – and conflict – in our society around this is just beginning. The mess in DC is just a starting point. Suddenly cities like San Francisco are struggling to reconcile two diverging classes – the rich and the poor – with the middle rapidly being squeeze out of the city. Cities like Chicago and Seattle are seriously considering trying to regulate a new generation of innovators, in the form of Uber and Lyft, while at the same time trying to present themselves as forward thinking innovative places to live. We went through this last year in Denver with Uber and my instinct at the time was that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s a really big iceberg. The incumbents are extremely powerful and love the status quo. Sure – they aren’t stagnant, but they’ll use all the tools available to themselves to protect their flanks. And the attackers aren’t from the left or the right, but from the new.

I’ve spent my entire professional career working on the new. I’ve always felt frustrated by the incumbents, by the bureaucracies, and by the old way of doing things. I’m not very nostalgic and spend most of my energy looking and moving forward, rather than trying to protect what I have.

Over the past few years, I’ve felt like the dynamic I’m describing was accelerating. There were days I just felt like I was getting older, but when I reflect on it, it’s no different that it always has been throughout history. While time marches on linearly at a very consistent cadence, change does not. It comes in fits and spurts and is as chaotic as the early days of any fast growing company. It’s not predictable, and when it accelerates, lots of crazy shit starts to happen.

I don’t have a solution to this, nor do I think there is one since it’s a completely unstable and dynamic situation. Many humans instinctively resist change. We fear the uncertain. We try to control what we can’t control.

Accepting the mess is part of the beauty of being human. All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.

  • When people ask why I left “big 4 consulting” for the start-up world (and in particular a “start-up” non-profit graduate school changing how teachers are taught and developed), I tell them that I had grown tired of “helping entrenched incumbents defend broken business models.” “Broken” might not be the perfect word, as some of my clients were very profitable (though not always growing much), but the word still rings true in a wider sense of being ill-suited for the new.

    Great post Brad.

  • There is the old way of doing things, many of which don’t work. And there are people who want to try new things…you are exactly right. A lot of people are clinging to the old ways…and defending them vigorously.

    • Once they accept they will die, they might let go of holding onto the old way. At least they might not hold on as tight.

      • I’d like to think so. And I am an optimist in the long run…back to reading your meditation post! lol

  • Everyone (including the incumbents) understands the need for change. But there is so much money in the system that few people really want the change. The easy availability of money (for people in large organizations – gov, biz, nonprofit) removes any normal market incentives. It is corrupting people without them even realizing it. I call this the Bulgarization of America… because it reminds me of the last 10-15 yrs of the socialist regime in Bulgaria when the government was spending large amounts of money borrowed from Western banks. A Greek would call it differently… 🙂 Problem is, Uncle Sam prints the money. American crony capitalism may prove very resilient and successful in delaying change for a long time ahead.

  • Mike Post

    This is such an important message to emphasise. Imagine a whole movement dedicated to diversifying your life and embracing the new. I’m experiencing this battle even more so with the iPhone app I released recently, an app targeted to more serious runners who still use their Garmins (as opposed to beginners who already use RunKeeper or Nike+).

    I remember 5 years ago when GPS watches were newish, yet most runners wrote them off as unnecessary and mocked the minority for standing around for 5 minutes in the cold to get a “signal”. Now that they’re widely adopted, I see the same reluctance to adopt smartphones. There’s already better GPS tech in an iPhone, at the minimum the iPhone tech is on par (Android is obviously a lot more varied). So it therefore works as a cheaper as well as a same/better option to train with your iPhone. But people who already own iPhones, still spend $200+ on Garmins. Why? Purely because it’s conventional.

    I noticed a lot of recreational runners already use their iPhones to train, but it’s the more serious runners who still use their Garmins. Both you know, and I know, that this WILL change eventually. Even athletes that prefer having something on their wrist because of the “feeling” are catered for here – it’s much cheaper and more versatile to run with a Pebble + iPhone combination than a static Garmin.

    I’ve always been one to welcome change rather than resist it, and I’ve traditionally been frustrated by people who are the opposite. But as I get older I’m becoming more accepting that it just takes a really, really, long time for the majority of people to embrace the new. I’ve been right about so many other things I’ve adopted before anybody else, I need to draw into that history for confidence, and just practise patience and persistence.

    • What’s the app? I’d love to try it.


    “Accepting the mess is part of the beauty of being human.”
    I like that except it’s good to put a bit of effort into seeing who’s creating the mess or why it’s coming about. I find it terrible that we as humans are still purposefully harming each other. It can be through violence or maybe gossip! From what I understand. In many religions gossip is akin to murder.
    What does this have to do with your post. Well it appears many times good people who do great things to help others are destroyed by trash that spreads gossip about them. I think we’ve all seen examples of this happening to public figures. The key is to not be a puppet. Not to allow yourself to be influenced by gossip or other manipulation.

    • There is a huge amount of wisdom in the statement “not to allow yourself to be influenced by gossip or other manipulation.” I’ve learned to tune out almost all of this. I don’t let it influence my thinking in any way. And, when it somehow breaks through, I look at it, and try to understood why it broke through, and then let it go.

  • Tracy McMillan

    I left academics because of the stance of the bureaucracy, the resistance to or speed of change in that setting & public government. The exchange of information & innovation crawled forward, and there’s no time (or excuse) for that when we’re talking about our nation’s health (my broad area of expertise).

  • JLM

    Your comment is targeted initially on politics and then wanders a bit further. No criticism intended there.

    As to politics, what seems to be happening is a failure to embrace the realities of things that are bedrock values and simple truths. These values and truths do not go out of fashion by their very nature.

    We want to be led by folks who are competent and nobody thinks the Federal government is particularly competent — witness the sorry state of our economic affairs.

    Competence becomes locked into integrity when leaders attempt to fashion a future which is neither real nor truthful. The President’s utterances on OBAMAcare and his fraudulent promises as to plans, doctors, costs are only made worse by the incompetent underlying financial algorithm and execution.

    The combination of incompetence and dishonesty is a toxic cocktail.

    Nobody who has ever been around numbers — businesses, States — can possibly be comfortable with the state of affairs at the Federal level. Deficit finance. Wasteful and fraudulent spending. No promised entitlement reform. Spiraling National Debt.

    This is particularly troubling when States routinely balance their budgets. The Nation has the talent and the roadmap. It requires a bit of restraint.

    A little discussed fact is that Federal revenues are at an all time high. If we cannot balance our books now, then when?


    • brgardner

      “As to politics, what seems to be happening is a failure to embrace the realities of things that are bedrock values and simple truths. These values and truths do not go out of fashion by their very nature.”

      Great way to put it. Our country has taken core truths and values to somehow be old fashioned and not “progressive.”

  • I agree with you, but I think it’s also even deeper than that. On the left, it’s old vs new and unions vs innovation. On the right, it’s old vs new and corporatists vs innovation. Innovation being the common theme, and Unions/corporations being like positive and negative integers! The only solution I can come up with is to decrease the footprint of the government regulatory apparatus-that way neither side can use influence or money to seek rents-which makes them both compete with innovation.

  • brgardner

    I am understanding this to be new is good and old is bad.

    Maybe there is another way to look at this. We should look at the new as building upon what the old has already learned. Otherwise the new will fall into the trap of having to relearn what the old has already figured out. We should reverence and respect the old for what they have learned and continue to improve upon what they have already done.

  • BSG reference FTW!

    • I sneak them in wherever I can.

  • Crods

    Framing this struggle with a vs is detrimental to progress.

    Technology has accelerated the process of performance measurement and feedback on a societal and cultural level and with it will (has) come a faster pace of acceptance and adoption of new ideas. Old will experience New much more frequently than ever before and learn to adapt to survive and thrive.

    Those thinking and working on unproven ground have tools to accelerate their efforts that weren’t available to their parents’ generation, including ready access to the world’s information.

    To Brad’s point, self-preservation is a predictable reaction from a bureaucracy/society whose pace of creation and analysis of history was slower.

    I’m hopeful that time will bring with it a blurred line between Old and New and that successive generations will innately apply and enjoy the rewards of this quickened pace of evolution.

    Being involved with and profiting from this process is an opportunity few of us are lucky enough to have.

    Framing the process with Us vs. Them concedes acceptance of the idea that the parties want different things when the reality is merely that our collective behavior is used to proceeding with less information.

    • Guest

      I agree in part. Marty Nuemeier has a great section on “the tyranny of or” in his book Metaskills.

      Old vs. new and left vs. right are both false dichotomies, in that the statement incorrectly presuppose that either / or is correct, and the other is false.

      However contemporary life is more nuanced than “if you’re not with me, you’re against me”. There are many old ideas that are amazing, and an idea is not necessarily good because it is new.

      Policymakers like to abstract problems out with labels that are unambiguous, but this simplifies complexity without solving it. We need people to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty if we want to move forward. This requires any discussion to be reframed entirely around its component parts, not individual sections of it that are in direct conflict.

      Engaging in false dichotomy is the reason the US political system is in gridlock and it doesn’t actually serve anyone’s interest to recreate another.

      I feel your angst Brad because I experience frustration in Australia too with entrenched incumbents in all different sectors. I just know it won’t solve anything to rotate the axis 90 degrees and create another reason for people to be obstinate.

      • Got disqused trying to move this comment- my thoughts above..