You’ve got to love the old to adopt the new

The point of this post: You need both innovation and preservation.

People who know me as a member of the OPS innovation community may be surprised by how much I love really old things. The languages I studied at university weren’t computer languages. They were Old and Middle English so that I could read Beowulf and Chaucer in the original. In fact, I took all of the pre-1500 literature courses that the English department offered – which included a number of other medieval works in translation. My library at home has a healthy amount of classical literature in translation, going as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh. In my coat pocket sits volume 2 of Seneca’s Moral Essays, which I am currently reading.

It’s not just in literature where I like old things. I’ve also got quite a collection of reproductions of medieval illuminated manuscripts, from the beautiful uncial calligraphy and intricate knotwork of the Book of Kells, through the stately gothic and gorgeous illuminations of 12th century psalteries and later books of hours to the intricate white vine work of the Italian Renaissance. I also collect medieval cookbooks – and cook from them.

It’s also not just in books that I like old things. I spend just as much time (or more) watching old TV shows like M*A*S*H, Welcome Back Kotter, The Dick Van Dyke Show, the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and 1970s SNL as I do watching more current fare. And it is a very rare song on my iPod rotation that is in any way current.

I think there are a few reasons why I like these relics of the past. They are a window into other cultures and I love exploring other cultures. They also provide a deeper understanding of my own culture, which in many ways grew out of these. And there is a certain sense that the passage of time has acted as quality control. Only the best have survived.

What does all of this have to do with innovation in the public service?

I think there is a risk that we innovators can be seen as sort of “anti-Luddite”. While Luddites indiscriminately smashed the new, I think that there is a fear that we are indiscriminately going after the old. The old is comfortable. The value is seen as proven. While there may be risks and problems, they are known risks and problems. The new is sexy, but it may be shallow and ephemeral.

I was thinking about this in a discussion with our former deputy minister, Ron McKerlie, at one of the Values-based Culture sessions in MGS. It’s a substantial initiative to significantly change MGS culture over a few years – reducing things like bureaucracy, silo mentality and hierarchy and increasing things like open communication, information sharing and balance. I remarked that this wasn’t the first time that the OPS had attempted this kind of shift in culture. If previous efforts hadn’t been successful, we should figure out why and avoid their pitfalls. He challenged me to do so.

My response ended up being that previous efforts to reduce bureaucracy, silos and hierarchy may have failed because they didn’t respect those “limiting” values enough. I know that sounds paradoxical. If you want to diminish them, it doesn’t seem to make sense to start by respecting them. But if you don’t acknowledge why people are holding on to them you’ll never get them to let go.

We need to acknowledge what good they are providing (along with their limits). We need to show that the value they provide will not be lost with the transition to the new. That the new culture (or process or technology) will provide those same benefits as much as or more so than the old, just in a different way. If we don’t really understand the existing, innovators can’t make that case. We have to show that we aren’t going to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Only when we show that we really understand the value of what they are holding on to can we get people to loosen their grip and make the leap with us. And that starts with really loving the old.

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