It's Time to Put Change First

Forests renew themselves with fire.  When old growth chokes new growth, nature regulates the situation: one strike of lightening and years of deadwood gets cleared out, while pine cones, bursting like popcorn from the heat, spread their seeds everywhere.  The next growth emerges from the ashes.  And so it goes.

In business, Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter called this phenomenon “Creative Destruction.”  In other words, change is good for its own sake.   It seemed to him that companies and industries succeed all the way up until they fail.  As they succeed, both tend to harden in their ways, or worse yet, start getting hidebound, cocky and sloppy.  Old habits choke new growth and old incumbents eat their young.  Success is an intoxicating and self-rewarding tonic until the industry leaders start to drown from drinking their own bathwater.  It is at that point that dramatic, plate-shifting change is needed.  For the US economy and particularly its financial superstructure, the time for dramatic, landscape-clearing change has come.  And if it seems like Wall Street is on fire these days, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

As I have written about, around 1000 days from now, the global economy is going to experience a “jump point,” technically a discontinuous inflection point.  When the world’s entire 3.5 billion-person workforce becomes connected to each other via the Internet in 2011, the global business environment will change in ways we have never before experienced.  There will be huge opportunities for wealth creation, matched by even bigger competitive challenges.  The world economy will look completely different than it does today.  But the clock is ticking.  If the US is to capitalize on the next economy (and that is in no way assured), we will need to make some fundamental changes-and fast.  The US simply isn’t designed to compete and win in a networked economy.  We were designed a generation ago to be the world’s breadbasket, policeman and end market of last resort.  And for decades, our economy has succeeded–right up until it failed.  If we’re smart, we can now reinvent ourselves for an even bigger future.

The riskiest thing we can do right now is stay the same while the world changes around us.

So, it is not just an empty campaign slogan: it really is time for change in Washington.

It is also time to dump the emotionalism-along with the dumb labels we give or emotions, like “liberalism” and “conservatism,” and do what’s right for our country.  The only “ism” the next economy values is pragmatism

I have spent my entire career in Silicon Valley, possibly the most change-attuned place on earth.  And, personally, I believe change is the medium of opportunity.  But, I know change can be painful for many; it is jarring and alarming and threatening for some people.  Especially if you profit from the status quo.

But just as nature knows, change is a necessary agent of new, better growth.  This economy wants to renew, so does this nation. 

Because it enthusiastically welcomes creative destruction, you can count on Silicon Valley to rework and reinvent itself every couple of years.  Today, everywhere you look gutsy entrepreneurs are working on something new, in greentech, biotech, mobile communications, and software.  From Tesla, the world’s best electric car, to new cures for cancer.  Change is good for business.

Now we have a historic chance to shake things up in Washington and promote new ideas there too.  

To that end, let’s put our country and our future first and embrace genuine systemic change.  Let’s check our emotions at the door and smartly rework this thing until we can be certain that we can compete and win in the next economy.  Let’s invest again in our commonwealth, instead of just in ourselves.  That means teacher’s unions need to step aside while we revamp our schools to compete in a changed world.  That means we stop squandering our national treasure on wars to nowhere.  That means we start exporting our products to the world with the same vigor we’re exporting our politics.  The Jump Point is Sputnik for this generation.

I am not sure either Barack Obama or John McCain really knows what to do about the coming economy.  I do know that it really doesn’t matter much what the guy on the yard signs and bumper stickers knows anyway.  No, as long as the titular president sits atop a bloated and stale permanent government that hasn’t been cleared out in years, we won’t see any real change in the Belt Way.  It is going to be tough to scrub some of these barnacles off the boat, but it stands to reason that a president of a new party will at least clear out a few thousand of the worst offenders.  As the arcane rules of Washington work, re-electing a standing party only results in a game of musical chairs: the “plum book” of appointed jobs will simply see a recycling of the same cronies and hangers-on we’ve had for seven tired years.  If we re-up with these incumbent appointees, we’ll only get the illusion of change–and the riskiest thing we can do right now is stay the same while the world changes around us.  As Einstein famously pointed out around the same time our current economy was being born: We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Whatever your politics, the most courageous course we can take right now (short of moving the White House to Silicon Valley) is to clear out the deadwood and summon a new crop of fresh thinkers to Washington. If you believe in the renewing power of change, that’s the most patriotic thing you can do.  In order to put country first, we need to put change first.


Tom Hayes is publisher of Edgelings.com and the author of Jump Point (McGraw-Hill 2008)