Compromise vs. Problem Solving

I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”

I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.

After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.”  There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.

The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about.  While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.

After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:

“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”

My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.

When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”

Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.

This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.

We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.

We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.

  • I watched the stream through lunchtime, and tho I couldn’t stick arnd for the rest of the day, I was struck by how out of touch David Cohen of Comcast’s positions were.  The crystalizing moment for me was the ‘what if we blackout TV’ comment.

    I thought – in realtime as you sat there + replied to him w/ essentially the same thing – that NO ONE under 30 (or any connected person over 30) would notice or care.  This is precisely why I said what I said back when SOPA was still up for a vote:

    “SOPA: a battle waged by old, mostly-white men who are desperate to obtain gov’t protection + enforcement of an obsolete business model.”

  • The ‘compromise mentality’ certainly reigns in the halls of government, which is unfortunate considering there are so many problems that need to be solved. But bitching from outside the doors instead of coming in with a better solution is something I try to avoid. I’ve often considered what we could do to make our representative democracy fundamentally more effective. I’d be very interested to see the effect of universal public election financing and term limits across all branches would have within a decade, but that will never happen. We are left to vote at the ballot box, and with our dollars which matter more, unfortunately.

  • Brad, this is a genuinely great piece and it needs to be broadly distributed in Washingtion (where I’m from).  I think this one post is not enough.  Frankly, our community needs to be educated on the cultural differences and so does Washington.  

    Julius, of course, sits in both worlds and that perspective is quite helpful.  Our industry is maturing and we have to find ways of using what we’ve learned these past two decades to hack Washington.  Likewise, we need to be respectful of their culture as well as Hollywood’s culture.  I think Paul Graham, one of the great startup intellectuals we have, has been incendiary and counterproductive.  Quietly, Jason Hirschorn is raising questions about the SOPA/PIPA challenges in his newsletter Media Redefined.  

    We need new approaches that require empathy and less combative rhetoric.  Looking forward to connecting on this.


  • Patricia Colling

    As a mid-level (and frustrated) public policy manager, I would say that this nails it.  I’m not involved in the federal scene in the US, but where I come from, we frame issues based on evidence and propose solutions that are positioned for the political. Since I’m not posting anonymously, I leave it to you to read in the rest of the (sarcastic) quotes. THIS is why I have been so irritated with our environment for the last couple of years.  I just haven’t been able to put it into words.  My early days in this were spent putting measures in place to deal with the problems as we understood them at the time.  I forgot that there were people who’d worked for *years* to bring the politicians along to the point where they’d agree to that set of initiatives.  It’s becoming clear to me that it could take a while to get to the next set of actions.  And while I have attempted to be the in-house, hopefully constructive skeptic (not much for “grinfucking”), that wears on a person after a while. 

    Also, I’ve been unplugged for a while, how great to come back to find your blog as good as ever…

  • I really enjoyed reading this. 

    Negotiation pros would argue that compromise is problem solving – primarily because they’re paid to deliver a closed deal, not drive the content of the closed deal.So, where is the bottom line?  Is it possible that everyone can come to the table and build a solution that works for most of everyone? I think that might be impossible. Why? The issue is too complex for most to understand and most people aren’t committed to a solution – on either side of the table.  What strikes me most about SOPA/PIPA/ACTA stuff is that it has deteriorated into theatrical politics – like abortion, church v. state, immigration, etc – bereft of intellectual honesty.I believe that the anti-SOPA/PIPA/ACTA side must deliver a solution that the other side will accept soon – or censorship will become the reality.

    • JamesHRH

      Most compromisers specialize in getting into a position where they can withhold approval in order to delay or scuttle progress.

      Its not problem solving when you purposefully create the problem.

  • DaveJ

    The negotiation/compromise mentality is in part a consequence of these companies’ (such as broadcast) being heavily regulated, such that lawyers end up running the companies instead of innovators. This is one of the secondary negative effects of regulation, and it’s cumulative across companies, such that our society has turned into a “regulatory culture.”  To *solve this bigger problem* (since we want to problem-solve) we need to dramatically reduce the role of regulation in business and in life.  I suspect that’s impossible, especially because there are constituencies who both make a living from the regulation as well as others who genuinely believe it’s a good thing.

  • Fascinating insight.

    Maybe problem solving = proposing something on the other end of the spectrum.

    eg: abolish copyright!

  • JamesHRH

    Brad, I have two words for you: Ross Perot. Techy problem solver meets the rest of America. Not the best outcome.

    Its not that you are incorrect (you have reached a very powerful insight here), but I believe you need to think about a key ratio:

    ‘ how many people want the big problems solved : how many care only about themselves ‘

    You are talking about turning most of American civilization on its head. Laudable, but wow. And, honestly, its not a uniquely American deal – most of the world is not interested in solving any problem that is not:

    ‘ what can I get and what is the least that I can risk / do to get it ? ‘

    I have a brother, who in a four person family business (which has limited requirement for problem solving as one family member operates and the rest are shareholders), has said to me:

    ‘ I like to see what the consensus is before I make a decision. ‘

    He was completely earnest. He is completely socially driven (status & money) and the only time right&wrong enters his thinking is when he thinks ‘is this something that important people would think is the wrong thing to do?’

    Total politician.

    The only way you motivate these people is through fear or greed. That is why politics eventually devolves into something people can’t stand, because fear is a hard thing to consistently generate in people, so you end up compromising (i.e., paying people off to get them to do the right thing).

    Your efforts in this regard are important – but I really think you should make sure you are comfortable biting off something that has a deep seated unchewable nature. 

    • I’ve already bitten off something that has a deep seated unchewable nature. I have very sharp and durable teeth, or at least I fantasize that I do.

      Having grown up in Dallas, Ross Perot had lots of other issues that prevented him from making more progress, at least in my humble perspective. But the reminder is super useful.

      • JamesHRH

        I am certain that there are many things that made Mr. Perot unelectable – no need to elaborate.

        I am pretty sure you are prepared, dentally;-)I always liked the loopy facial hair policy, as an example of oddness.Best of luck in the world of compromise. You are to be respected for your decision.

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  • This post does a great job illustrating why engineers and technologists are so often baffled when dealing with Washington.  I’ve seen it first-hand when silicon-valley companies got word that the FDA was starting to regulate mobile health apps. 

    I think the concept of “sunk cost” is probably one of the big drivers of this disconnect.  In the tech world, pivots and strategy changes often involve abandoning an existing code base.  It’s not ideal, but it happens, and from what I’ve seen, the pain is quickly forgotten as the new product performs even better.  In DC, sunk costs (political, time, money) often drag down decision-making.  Constituents want to know what happened to their proposal.  Donors and interest groups want to ensure that some element of their agenda is drawn through.  Even politicians are perms-labeled by their original position on a bill (note your reference to Sen. Bennet as an original co-sponsor of PIPA.) 

    I’m not sure what the solution is; it’s clear that technologists need to continue to engage with Washington, or risk being left out of a conversation which will impact us all in the future.

  • I listened to a good part of the conference. I also was a little dismayed that so few solutions were offered.  This issue doesn’t seem that complex to me.  We help content owners protect their valuable stuff and they loosen up on fair use exceptions. Crowd source is good crowd rule is not.  To begin to argue that “to promote the useful arts” doesnt mean profiting on your creative work, as Gigi did, doesn’t pass the smell test nor does the idiotic overly broad enforcement mechanisms of SOPA.  Open source the problem to the community, we will come up with an answer, but like anything else…test first, iterate…them implement. 

    • The biggest problem is that the proponents of things like SOPA/PIPA (I’ll call them incumbents) don’t really want to test first, iterate, then implement. They want to solve entirely from their frame of reference, independent of any other frame of reference. That came through loud and clear a few weeks ago and then again yesterday.

  • Anonymous

    I have followed your blog and love the
    perspective you bring to current issues. 
    But in part this is because I believe we probably share a similar world-view.  The challenge with trying to draw the line
    between compromise and problem solving is that it presumes that we share the
    same perspective on what the problem is in the first instance. While the
    entertainment and publishing industry might say that they view the problem as
    being the current 50 sites that contain 80% of the problematic content, if they
    dug deeper, they might truly be defining the problem for themselves as the
    possibility that those 5 sites will blossom to 100’s and that the dominant
    perspective will be that broader, less constrained usage of copyrighted content
    will become an accepted foundation for future legislation.  If the problem is defined this way, then compromise
    becomes the only path because it’s a zero-sum game—what you gain, I lose and
    vice versa.  I hate this mentality too,
    but it is a reality today.  The political
    constituencies are not interested in finding solutions to what you and I might
    see as the problem. 

    • Digitization over the past 30 years has proven time and time again that everyone wins and it is extremely democratic (longest of long tails).  As unit costs go down (ARPu) revenue per user goes up (ARPU).  Markets grow.  This is due to 1) normal pricing elasticity; 2) new demand generated by new applications/uses and/or variations of content/tools; and 3) shift from private/latent to public demand.  All 3 scale networks even more (metcalfe) and also pave the way for centrally subsidized access (ad-sponsored models, vpn’s, free calling/viewing, etc…).  That’s universal service.  Not a tax and not constricted viewing/distribution.

  • It makes you wonder what are peoples motivations to get into politics to begin with if the ability to change the world is stamped out once you are knee deep.  Further more, the career polititians, the ones with real power, whats their deal?  Is this nation run by those with the least ability to solve problems?

    also this is a great line “and better yet no college kid in the world would notice”. Would apply to many folks now.  My TV entertainment setup is so devoid of ads that when one does occur, I have to explain to my 4 year old son what it is and why its there.  I’ve likely seen a million TV ads in my youth, my son has seen… maybe seven.

  •  Love your blog.

  • StevenHB

    Brad, this completely resonates with something that you said to me about the Startup Visa effort.  You told me that it seemed to you that the Republicans will oppose anything proposed by the Democrats simply because it was proposed by a Democrat (and vice versa, this is a non-partisan observation).  This stuck with me for a while (not least because it made me feel that I was naive) but it sounds like another way of saying the same things being described here: no politician wants to cede “leadership” or credit on any issue, ever, to the other side.  Compromise seems to be about sharing credit while problem solving is about solving real problems.

    I’ve seen similar behavior in commercial environments (“the idea must be bad because X suggested it”) but it’s not as universal or consistent.

    • Bingo! Senator Udall did a nice job of talking about “red shirt issues vs. blue shirt issues” and how this dominates. Ironically, in SOPA/PIPA is didn’t, as there was a view that there was “broad bi-partisan support”, but there was also broad bi-partisan opposition which was actually more important than the support since when the red shirts and the blue shirts both decided it was bad, it probably was bad.

  • Phil

    What is so fascinating to me in situations like you describe is that we have these increasingly complex problems that must be addressed, on all fronts, but technology is playing no role. It is not allowed. The millennia-old approach of putting a bunch of people in the room to ‘figure things out’ is the only approach used, and the results are always the same—the group fails to do anything useful or meaningful. Your frustration is shared by many and it involves all fields, not just politics. 

    Remember the ‘reengineering’ approach of the 90s? Why didn’t it reach its potential? Michael Hammer, a co-author of the definitive book that sparked that movement, has since said that ‘reengineering’ left out the ‘people factor.’

    We, those involved in technology and the web, have cherry picked opportunities and problems that were easy to address and resolve. This has lead to a belief that human problems can be solved with the same basic, logical, rational approaches; that we can switch off our human emotions, make compromises, and solve any problem. (I even watched a video yesterday that implied that 11-and 12-year-olds can build apps to solve the climate issues — what?)
    Technologists largely ignore the messy aspects of humanity that don’t follow the laws of physics. As a group we fail to recognize the role that prevailing mindset plays (our human programming.) We (as a group) are largely ignorant of the well-documented genetic limitations of our brains, of our working memory, to handle complex situations. (You might say, our brains have a fixed 8-bit processor, while the demands of our increasingly-complex world require 128-bit code). And
    since code can’t be written to address human emotions, we take these out of the equation, entirely, saying they shouldn’t be a factor.

    Let’s get real, people. What did you just experience during your important gathering this past weekend?

    I remember the wise words of Dr. Dan Lord, who once told me: “Compromise is winning a battle but is not the winning of the war. Compromise at its heart does not consider the other (or the real objective). Its purpose is to maneuver the obstacle of the other’s difference. After compromise neither party is motivated by what they feel they were coerced to give up. There is no
    sense of working together.”

    But the question remains: What are we, the technology people, doing to ‘change the game’, or perhaps more accurately, to change our mindset, first, so we can see this is not a game? This is the challenge WE face — to deliver on the promise of the web — to move beyond simplistic connecting and sharing; to engage, collaborate and solve. Without sounding crass, for the past 12 years I’ve dedicated my business and personal life to this growing issue. I’ve traveled down the rabbit-hole and I’ve got something to show for it. 

    Spherically speaking,

    • Phil – I started off following you and nodding my head the first three paragraphs, but then I got lost. 

      Help me understand where you are going with this – it seems interesting but I’m not processing it.

      • Thanks Brad. Glad you got the first 3 graphs. My contention is simple: technology could have been there for you this past weekend. But (techs) are not in the habit of creating applications that address the messiness of our humanness.

        Programmers don’t typically write code to factor in our mindset, or, the science of complexity, or, our genetic limitations, or, the emotions and beliefs that trump our rationality. Let me briefly explain…  

        Mindset: we’ve lived by a machine metaphor for the last several centuries. Most of us still function by linear step-by-step processes. We think we can fix things by finding the broken part. But scientists have known for the better part of the 20th Century that there is no machine. Our lives, world, environments are actually “complex systems.”

        Complexity: Our environments are getting more complex by the day.  Big business is releasing all kinds of reports about it. But when we say the word “complexity” few of us think of it in terms of science, which encompasses multifaceted disciplines.  We have no idea how to make practical applications of the science of complexity in our daily human interactions and activities. We do not grasp what it means to fully function as inter-related, interconnected, turbulent, self-organizing systems. When we do, it will change everything about the way we think, see, act and code.  

        Genetic limitations: So here we are, being bomb blasted by way too many issues, choices and decisions, still committed to the tedious task of breaking our world into parts and failing miserably at it. Why? We’re not factoring in one of our own human limitations. Since the mid-1950s, it has been an established and verified fact that we can only juggle about 7 things at a time. When we exceed that genetic limitation we begin to hit ‘overload’ and drop items.

        Then, there are our emotions, which are tied to our beliefs. These automatically override rational thought and must be calmed by the approach or solution that is devised. We cannot simply tell, order or demand that people be rational.

        Now, I believe human limitation is an opportunity for innovation. But, that innovation does not mean programmers can simply write code to direct human behavior. (Visualization becomes a crucial element, getting both sides of our brain working together, which reflects systems science and neuroscience. But that’s another discussion for another time.)

        My point is: The next generation of social media must grow up. It must address real social issues. Over the last dozen years, I’ve co-authored two books on these subjects and created and deployed a patented online technology and methodology that does this. I like to say, I’m taking the world from a line to a circle. The machine as metaphor has passed. The Sphere is here.

        • Ok – so what is the Sphere?

          • There is no counterpart to The Sphere. But, I will try this: Do you recall the impact of the electronic spreadsheet (late 70s/early
            80s)? The Spreadsheet was the killer app that validated the business of the personal computer. Well, The Sphere is a transformational app to validate the power of social media.

            To be more specific…

            End-user answer: The Sphere has helped save marriages. It has helped corporate executives avoid making bad decisions. It has helped disadvantaged high school students make informed choices about college. It has helped human resource departments zero in on the best hires. The Sphere puts people on the same page — a parent and a child; two people in a
            relationship; a handful of business partners; hundreds of people inside a corporation, thousands, in a community, hundreds of thousands, in politics. The applications are endless, from dating to diabetes.

            Technical answer: The Sphere is a patented visualization technology and methodology that features a simple-to-understand, standardized, universal, visual model that reveals the interconnected whole of any complex system.

            Ah-ha answer: The Sphere is an online system that visualizes our perceptions of reality. It helps us navigate our complex interconnected environments. It helps us see the forest and the trees. It’s a dynamic dialogue map. It captures a reflection of our current views. In fact, The Sphere compliments the limits of our working memory. We like to call it ‘life’s little cheat-sheet,’ or, if you prefer, a paper telescope. The Sphere makes way for leaps in understanding.

            Practical answer: The Sphere displays essential details of complex issues on a single page — in a circle. So you can see them in context. So you can see how they interrelate. So you can quickly expand your views and make better-informed decisions ‘on the fly.’

            Marketable answer: Consider The Sphere the ‘next generation’
            of social media — of what people are beginning to call “interest”
            networking. The Sphere is the complete package. It’s practical. It’s powerful. It’s a mind-changer.

            Brad, between the early 1990s and the late 1990s, I designed and deployed four other online applications that were ahead of the curve. Then, I dropped out of the corporate scene, in 1999, and moved to a mountain cabin to satisfy an overwhelming drive inside of me to make sense of the complicated changes occurring in the business world and our world-at-large. I suspected, as
            society reached a dawning era of interconnection, that we would require a dramatic transformation in the way we see, think and act. While living in that cabin, I researched and co-authored the
            book, Being Spherical: Reshaping Our Lives and World for the 21st Century. It was published in 2004. Shortly before its completion, a patent was filed on the Spherical Modeling Tool and that patent was officially approved the fall of 2008. Meanwhile, I focused my activities on research, development and validation of The Sphere. It’s now been used by the US Army, government agencies, colleges/universities, corporations
            and NGO’s, advisors, counselors and management consultants.

            Technically, my journey to The Sphere began in the late 1970s, when my wife nearly died and we met an unconventional doctor who introduced us to “whole health” — way ahead of that
            movement. That and other stories are documented in my second co-authored book: It’s Going to be O.K. (but not like we thought.)

            The thing is; I’ve done the work. I know where we’re at — right now. I’ve seen it before — that moment when the big guys are looking for the next big thing.

          •  Phil, the killer app was not a specific office component, rather the OS that allowed multi-tasking, then the intra-doc capability that allowed info sharing and repurposing and merging, and then email so that the documents could be shared inter-user.  Your sphere Is all about information velocity; through-out history.  What we’ve witnessed in the past 30 years (since the break-up of MaBell) is an incredible acceleration and the accompanying resistance to change (aka SOPA/PIPA and other regulations like bill and keep).  The digital world implies going from vertical integration to horizontal completeness and scale.

          • I totally agree that the essential key was the OS, which ultimately allowed a wide range of software products to eventually be built. But in 1979 chips, keyboards, and a monitor combined with an OS had no compelling reason to live. The spreadsheet was a killer app, an app that by itself justified the purchase of a personal computer. Until VisiCalc there was no motivation for a non-tech business person to buy, what we now call a PC. The common OS allowed for the same PC, as you say, to multi-task and do word processing and later combine words with graphics and … General use open email was some 15 years away. All possible because of a common OS.

            You are also accurate that The Sphere is about information velocity. It instantly cuts through complexity in all aspects of our lives and businesses. The Sphere is a common OS that allows for unlimited applications to be designed and deployed. The key difference is that The Sphere results in a common visualization showing the shape of a company, a marriage, a person’s health etc. We even call it a visual operating platform. 

            You may find this interview published yesterday with me about some of these points about The Sphere of interest

          • Did that sufficiently answer your question about what is The Sphere?

          • Um – no – I have no idea what the sphere is.

          • Oh. My bad! 

            How about this illustration: You’ve just found out you have to be in New York by 9 a.m. tomorrow. But, if you try and “walk” there, you won’t make it on time. That’s a human limitation. So you hop a plane, thanks to the efforts of Orville and Wilbur Wright. 

            We’ve created many technologies to support many of our human limitations. But we’ve overlooked one critical one: the limits of our working memory. In fact, we don’t know it’s a problem. We demand we manage our increasingly complex issues the same old way. Put a bunch of smart people in the room and walk … er … talk it out. We think we can get to New York by morning. Instead, we get overloaded, we get cranky, we resist new information, we get nowhere fast. 

            You might say The Sphere is air travel for the mind. If you don’t believe me, like some folks doubted air travel in the Wright brothers day, I’ll be glad to show you a picture. After all, it is a visualization technology.

  • Alan Minor

    DISCLAIMER: You may have offered a counter-proposal at some other point. I don’t know. The ensuing comment is based on what has been said in this blog post.

    “When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they
    would respond ‘what’s the counter proposal?’ My first response was
    usually ‘What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that
    shouldn’t even be considered.’ The response to this was ‘Yes, but if I
    am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.'”

    Their request of a counter-proposal is a valid appeal on the basis of advancing a solution. They may have intended the request as an empty gesture — a reflex of contemporary political compromise. However, offering a counter-proposal is part and parcel of problem solving. Perhaps in summarizing this exchange you left out some key details? It seems to me, though, that you are overlooking the tangential relationship between compromise and problem solving. Making concessions can lead to a less than optimal solution. Making concessions can also lead to an optimal solution. Let me briefly explain.

    Before an optimal solution can be reached, a clear definition of the problem must occur. (I know, I know — this is obvious.) We can agree that SOPA/PIPA is a problem: to say it lacks a surgical approach to curbing online piracy would be an understatement. However, simply negating the proposed legislation as a solution does not solve the problem. (I’m assuming, here, we agree that media corporations have a legitimate grievance with the issue of online piracy, and thus the problem actually exists.) That’s where the counter-proposal can help accelerate actual problem solving. Because without clear, thoughtful counter-proposals, we will continue to see iterations of DMCA, COICA and SOPA/PIPA. And neither of us want that.

    • Understood. I spent many hours during SOPA/PIPA on the following things. First, I challenged folks to articulate the problem and substantiate it (most couldn’t go any deeper than the generic high level talking point.) Next, I’d say something like “assume that piracy is an issue – what are we specifically trying to solve for.” The proponents of SOPA/PIPA refused to engage thoughtfully in this discuss. Finally, once I realized the combination of these two things, I realized it was pointless to continue this particular thread and SOPA/PIPA must die. 

      I’m perfectly happy and willing to engage in “problem solving” around the issue of online piracy. I’m involved in several activities with folks who previously supported SOPA/PIPA that might evolve in this category – at least I’m hopeful they will.

      And yes – I totally agree – these things will keep coming up. Gigi did a great job of showing us chronologically how SOPA/PIPA is deja vu all over again in her presentation.

      • Alan Minor

         Fair enough. Keep up the good fight.

      • Brad, I think we need to look at history, put things into context and get people on the same page.  Convince everyone of win win.  But maybe that is not possible and it requires the act of one person (Steve Jobs) or small group of companies to begin disruption, disintermediation and digitization to traditional analog models.  I’d say Jobs and Bill McGowen, the former for getting AT&T to accept WiFi backdooring and the latter for breaking up the old AT&T which led to web 1.0, are the two most important people of the past 30 years.

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  • This is the exact reason why people who should enter politics don’t: When faced with the choice, they chose to solve problems, as efficiently as possible.

  • Mahendra R

    Brad: Awesome post – Glad that you encouraged them to go dark for 3 hours – that would certainly help them to understand where they stand. 

    More importantly, I am glad that you take the time and effort to understand these issues, develop a thoughtful response and stay with it. Very few people care enough to do all three – most of us bitch about how screwed up DC is, read a blog or two and then  go home, drink our beers and go to bed. This country needs more VCs like you.This is far from over and as you can see with Startup Visa, the strategy in DC is to lay low till our noise goes away and then sneak it when a big pile of stuff gets passed. Although this being an election year, things will come to a standstill for 18 months, rest assured that this will rise again. 

  • Compromise vs. problem solving. You’ve summarized what politics are about. Another word often used is Consensus. I hate that word. It means mediocrity. It means we’re going to lower the bar so low til we agree on the lowest most insignificant thing.

  • Marlin Blackburn

    Brad, I understand what you and Mr. Genachowski discussed.  As an entrepreneur and former test pilot, I learned this early.  When we came back from a test run, we “debriefed.”  It was sometimes a gruelling endeavor.  We talked about the successes and how they could be incorporated into the life of the airframe and we listened to the shortcomings too.  There were usually a lot of them.  There was a standing rule: If you can’t add to the solution, SHUT UP.  Conversely, if another pilot or engineer offered a creative solution and you could not address why it was not applicable: SHUT UP.

    That “debriefing” exercise has continued to help me all these years in my entrepreneurial exercises.  Discussions were still heated, but I always enforced the “solution or silence” mode. We worked together or soon found the people who could find everything wrong were not that valuable in operating the enterprise.

  • Brett Glass

    Alas, Brad, if you wanted to solve problems, the Silicon Flatirons conference was the wrong place. It is all about politics and money, not about actually solving problems. It is about generating large corporate contributions for the University of Colorado, while benefiting those corporations by (effectively) lobbying for them. This conference was, for example, one of the epicenters of the drive for so-called “network neutrality” regulations, which were not neutral at all (they were specifically drafted to benefit bit Silicon Flatirons contributor Google) and would have even more untoward consequences than SOPA/PIPA were they not destined to be overturned by the courts because they are illegal.

    Since Silicon Flatirons’ conflicts of interest and entanglements with politics and corporate interests are irreparable, it’s probably time to start a competing conference of problem solvers. Up for it?

  • Bob Batcheler

    Brad – great post. It put a larger context around one of my greatest learnings from the past nine years in co-founding a startup and continuing to build it into a great company (, We have a great, world-class team of really smart people, who typically share a common goal and are largely aligned in their core values. I say that as background/precondition for what follows, because I realize not everyone CAN say that with conviction and I fully realize how fortunate I am to be able to.

    The key learning? While there is no shortage of opinion and animated discussion within our company, I have learned that when the discussion begins to turn toward argument, and two or more people are at loggerheads, 9 times out of 10, it’s because we have not yet found the RIGHT solution. They are arguing between two sub-optimal solutions, and my job as a business leader / facilitator is to coaxe them out of their rapidly hardening positions, to seek the better, more optimal solution.  Whenever there is a serious argument over the path ahead, I have learned to avoid choosing up sides, and instead push us to find a better solution.  I have seen this work, time and time again.
    It’s not about compromise. It’s not about someone winning and some else losing. It’s about finding the right solution, solving the right problem.

  • Dead Group
  • Great insight. You are actually questioning the appropriateness of the democratic/legislative process as designed to reach consensus for a population. I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it is what it is. If we had philosopher kings in charge then we could problem solve, implement and optimize for the greater good. Yet current democracy defines the greater good as the result of compromise, which could not be farther from the truth. We need to reboot the meaning of democracy in the 21st century.

  • Derek Scruggs


    One tangential thought that this brings to mind. Back in the early days of the second Bush administration I read a profile of Donald Rumsfeld. He created a document called Rumsfeld’s Rules that he passed out to his staff at the DOD.

    Among them is a quote from Shimon Peres: “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”

    That quote stuck with me and I’ve often used it to help me deal with difficult situations. And I believe Rumsfeld forgot this rule when it came to dealing with Iraq.

    My point: perhaps there is a solution to the compromise vs. problem-solving mindset. But it might well just be a fact that fighting bad legislation every 2-5 years is the new normal for entrepreneurs and innovators.

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  • I don’t think you are seeing far enough into this dilemma.  A lot of the SOPA/PIPA haters keep discussing why it’s bad, but they don’t spend the same amount of quality time describing an alternative solution to the media companies’ legitimate concerns.  That’s not gonna solve anything.  (Fred Wilson posted about this problem today.)

    When I got out of engineering school (MechE) and started hacking COBOL and LISP at Accenture (Arthur Andersen MISD back then), I had the fortunate experience of being mentored by some really good systems engineers who also had great people skills.   They taught me that the strongest skill of any engineer (or consultant) is empathy – the ability to stand in your client’s shoes and understand what their pain points are; solve their problems for them using your engineering brain; and then negotiate the contract with that solution in front of both of you.  Even before you’ve detail-designed it.   This ended up being the model for a lot of successful partners there.  We spent a LOT of time and money in pre-sales, solving problems before asking for much money.

    I’ve found throughout my career that compromise and contracts are relatively easy to achieve once you are able to describe/articulate a valuable & affordable solution that meets the other side’s needs – before it meets your own. A lot of engineers don’t have enough empathy.  Most good politicians do.   It would really help our country if we had more empathetic engineers in Congress, eh?  

    Thanks for the excellent post.  It summarizes why I am so frustrated with politics right now… and why I’m an independent voter (and plan to stay that way for a while).

    • The one thing I disagree with is that anti-SOPA/PIPA folks aren’t putting forth solutions. I’ve been trying, but many of the SOPA/PIPA supporters either (a) are uninterested in having a discussion, (b) can’t seem to have a rational discussion, or (c) only know how to repeat whatever “party line” has been fed to them. So – zero critical thinking and zero effort at solving a problem from their perspective other than a “negotiated legislative solution” ala SOPA/PIPA.

      • Sure, some tech companies are trying to work with media companies.  For example, Flipboard (one of my angel investments) has taken great pains to design a platform with the needs of media companies and brand advertisers in mind.  

        Curious: what other solutions have been proposed by the tech community?  
        (Apologies in advance, but I haven’t searched your blog for solutions you may have proposed.)

        • Many tech companies work effectively with media companies. That’s not the issue there; rather it’s media companies trying to use legislation to protect their incumbent position and stifle innovation.

          In addition, there’s an enormous amount of debate about what the actual “problem” that the “potential solutions” are supposed to address. 

          Until the discussion shifts from a negotiation over legal stuff to a discussion of the actual problem being addressed, I believe we are stuck in a continuous cycle of mess.

          Re: what solutions have been proposed by the tech community – I”m not even sure where to start with this since it’s a rapidly evolving and dynamic environment. The idea that there is a straightforward solution is illogical.

          • Brad, I agree with you (completely) that media companies are forcing us into a legal battle, and it’s not in the best interest of anyone to let this go on.   

            Straightforward or not, I think we (tech) need to get clear on where we stand on the following questions:   1. who should lead/frame the discussion of the problem to be addressed?  does it serve us best to wait for media execs to do this? isn’t that what just happened in Congress?
             2. once the problem is defined, who should lead the design of a solution?  should this be technology leaders or media executives?  which of us possesses the skills needed to design and build a solution, once the problem is defined? 
            Hopefully this last round of rockem-sockem (which media clearly lost) will push both sides to seeks a common definition of the problem and to seek affordable solutions that are in the best interests of the consumer.   Tech is clearly winning right now, how about we jump on the chance to lead the next discussions?Re. problems and solutions – I like some of Fred Wilson’s thoughts & ideas (99% of people are pirates today – isn’t that the problem? moving to pay windows instead of time/release windows; providing for copyright registries, but not DRM).  Watching Fred discuss these issues w/ NBC lawyer gave me hope we will find the right mix of solutions.  In the hope of a quick win:  perhaps simply moving to pay windows will provide sufficient financial motivation for media companies to finally adopt modern online distribution and marketing methods.  Adopt the weapons of their enemy, in other words.  My guess is this would be net positive for tech companies if they did that.   
            One can hope…

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  • “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.” Ha! 

    When you say you are solving a problem, who defined the problem?  Your solution will be your best idea for what is troubling you.  PIPA was the solution to someone else’s problem.  And when you get into the arena of politics, you also have to find solutions that you have the power to achieve. 

    Power is the gravity of politics or any interpersonal
    relationships.  To consider a political problem without considering
    power is like building a bridge without considering gravity.    You could design the perfect perfect piece of legislation, but without the power to get it passed, it will simply collapse.

    Problem solving v. Compromise sets up a false dichotomy.  There are lots of other strategies to find out what the other players want, need, and are willing to accept and then to create possibly a whole new ‘solution’ that no one thought of before because they were only thinking about what was important to them. 

    But if some party has enough power to get whatever they want, the ‘solution’ will generally be their idea of the best way to solve their problem. 

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