Time for a “Lean” Political Party?

As a long-time student of both politics and entrepreneurship, and a keen observer of / participant in America’s current funk and loss of confidence, I can’t help wondering if it’s time to apply some of the best principles of one to the other.

Specifically, the Republican/Democrat duopoly is somewhat of a take-it-or-leave-it Hobson’s choice and given our seemingly intractable issues and the gridlock in Washington, the time might be ripe to create a new option. To be sure, there are independent candidates from time-to-time but they are either single-issue movements (e.g. Greens) or lack credibility or electability (e.g. Ross Perot). I’m talking about a well-funded, truly mainstream third party that represents a majority of public opinion, not just the highly vocal but polarizing views of Tea Partiers (e.g. those who are most dissatisfied with Obama’s expansion of the State) or Big Government Lefties (e.g. those who are most dissatisfied with Obama’s lack of accomplishments).

And while we’re fantasizing about creating a new political party, why not use as our starting point one of the main things that sets America apart from the rest of the world and gives us the most hope of getting out of our funk: our deep-seated entrepreneurial culture, ecosystem and skills? For those familiar with start-ups, one of the most important strategies for building a company is the notion of the Lean Start-up, pioneered by Steve Blank and expanded upon and branded by Eric Ries. If you’re not familiar with the concepts, click here.

There are several reasons why “lean” might be the right philosophy for starting our new party:

  1. we face a time of extreme uncertainty both at home and abroad;
  2. the current parties seem mired in a time when the “product” and “market” are known quantities;
  3. we need to go fast. Current Washington gridlock is unproductive;
  4. we don’t have unlimited funds – better to test what works, fail quickly and hone the concept;
  5. the public is ready (this may be naive/debatable) for an approach where policy-makers acknowledge what they know and what are still hypotheses and adopt an aggressive “test and iterate” approach;

So if you’re still with me, you might be thinking, “interesting, how would we get started?” I’m no expert on start-up political parties, but here are a few ideas. My sense is that every new political movement, like every start-up needs three things:

  1. A solid philosophical, intellectual and policy foundation that jives with a large segment of the population. In start-up world we know this as “product/market fit” as very ably described here by Marc Andreeson. I would recruit no-nonsense, seemingly non-partisan, moderate voices (caveat: I don’t know any of these people or their politics) such as Roger Cohen (great article in International Herald Tribune) and the authors of Nudge (great book that’s based on the concept of ‘libertarian paternalism,’ or the idea that market mechanics and free choice are good, but free choice that is ‘nudged’ by data on outcomes can be better).
  2. Financial backing. Surely there must be some VC’s who understand the need and the lean approach and who may be a little discouraged after supporting Obama and seeing relatively little action on issues like climate change and immigration reform.
  3. A principled, inspirational leader. In start-up world, this is the founder/CEO who can communicate the vision, recruit the team and make things happen. While I agree with many who say that the myth of the “great leader” is overblown and in some cases counter-productive (see Jim Collins’ book Good to Great that talks about this and the value of near ego-less but hard-driving and competitive “Level 5 leaders.”), I do think a political party, especially a new one, needs a Washington or Kennedy-esque figure. I don’t know who it should be but I would be a fan of a public competition where our (hypothetical) financial backers could fund a social campaign where people could nominate their friends on Facebook, nominees could apply and state their cases in a standardized way, and then the public and a panel of judges (Simon Cowell?) could decide the winner. Great PR and likely to produce the best leader in a highly meritocratic and transparent process.

Of course I know that the idea of starting a new political party in a nation that has been dominated by a two party system for over two centuries is, to put it kindly, optimistic. But this is the country that produced Google and Facebook and Apple and Microsoft. Why not combine that ‘creative destruction’ with current start-up best practices and give it a shot?

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