Tradition: The preserving force counterbalancing innovation

Tradition: The preserving force counterbalancing innovation

Innovation Method
Published On:
May 22, 2023

A few days ago, I watched with admiration some parts of the state funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth II of England. I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow, they put on quite a show.” At times, the ceremony felt like being transported back in time to the Middle Ages, looking at the ornate historical uniforms, display of sabers and other historical weapons, horses and carriages, and established rituals like firing a cannon shot for each of the Queen’s years of life or having military personnel pulling the the State Gun Carriage, among others. Watching the beautifully orchestrated ritualistic ceremony made me realize the value of tradition, the force that counterbalances innovation, which is the force of renewal I am preaching. I acknowledged how certain traditional rituals, customs, and practices are worthwhile, are captivating to watch as they unfold, and are touching people’s hearts and spirits. Today, let’s spend some time discussing tradition’s value and investigating its influential dynamic with positive change (= innovation).

What is tradition? And what’s its opposing force?

“When a tradition gathers enough strength to go on for centuries, you don’t just turn it off one day,” noted the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. Tradition can be defined as a long-established custom or belief that has been passed on from one generation to another. Other concepts related to the term include a ritual, convention, ceremony, observance, institution, or principle. In many ways, traditions are like a mighty oak tree — deeply rooted in the past, towering high above the more mundane aspects of everyday life and providing everything on the ground with shadow and shelter from the celestial turbulences unfolding high up in the sky. Like a majestic giant redwood, traditions are cherished and admired. So who would even think of cutting an old tree off to make space for something new? And who dares to question some of the long-held traditions?

“When you create something new, you’re breaking tradition – which is an act of defiance.”

— Steven Strogatz, American mathematician

Like with many things in life, tradition is opposed by a counterbalancing force: progress, or in other words: positive change or innovation. According to the dictionary, progress means advancement or development toward a better, more complete, or more modern condition. Similarly, change can be defined as replacing something with something else, especially something of the same kind that is newer or better. As such, progress, aka positive change, aka innovation, is a counterforce emanating opposite, transformative energy compared to tradition. It’s more like planting, nurturing, and growing a fresh seed that can grow into a majestic, sky-scraping redwood in the future.

Interestingly, both traditions and innovations have their place and can make meaning. Traditions can be meaningful because they prevent the end of something good that is worthwhile preserving. On the other hand, most innovations make meaning because they introduce something new that improves people’s lives or rights, something that is wrong, thus making the world a better place.

“The modernity of yesterday is the tradition of today, and the modernity of today will be tradition tomorrow.”

— Jose Andres, Spanish chef

Why is there a tension between these forces?

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse,” said Winston Churchill. Tradition and innovation (progress) are in a silent tug of war with each other. This struggle is grounded in a fight for influence, dominance, and power and can take place in a family, a group, an organization, or a society. Traditionalists stand for the preservation of the status quo and the established order of things, while progressives push for moving to a new order of things and shifting to a new, better world. Across human history, this tug of war goes on between those who want to preserve what’s well-established and those who long for positive change.

“Tradition has it that whenever a group of people has tasted the lovely fruits of wealth, security, and prestige, it begins to find it more comfortable to believe in the obvious lie and accept that it alone is entitled to privilege.”

— Steven Biko, South-African anti-Apartheid activist

Who’s involved in this tug of war? And what roles do they play?

Interestingly, the people who are most actively involved in this tug of war for influence and power are only a minority. We can explain this with the help of Everett Rogers’ diffusion of innovation theory and the related innovation adoption curve:

  • Roughly one in six people is a diehard traditionalist who likes everything to stay the same and dislikes if someone wants to rock the boat. Rogers calls these people laggards when t comes to embracing and adopting a new innovation.
  • On the other end of the rope in our tug of war, hardcore progressives pull with all their might to introduce positive change (= innovation) into a group, organization, or society. Again, roughly one in six people fall into this category. Rogers distinguishes them into innovators who create an innovation (or: instigate positive change) and early adopters who validate that this is progress and then promote it.
  • Four in six people represent the majority who watch this tug of war from the sidelines. After some time, they might join rooting for one side or the other or even join pulling the rope in one direction. (Rogers separates them into an early and a late majority, depending on how soon they embrace innovation).  

Where do you see yourself in this tug of war? Are you more of a traditionalist who doesn’t want to fix anything that ain’t broken? Are you one of the progressives pushing for positive change? Or are you one of the majority leaning more to one side or the other depending on the issue?

How do we know who’s who?

TIPS, Thinkergy’s Talent & Innovator Profiling System, distinguishes people into 11 profiles that are attracted to one of four base orientations (Theories, Ideas, People, and Systems). We can find the people who likely get actively involved in the tug of war between those who value tradition and those who initiate progress on two of these bases:

  • Traditionalists typically revolve around the Systems-base. So, those who profile in TIPS as Organizers, Technocrats, and especially Systematizers tend to cherish traditions, rituals, and customs and like to preserve the status quo.
  • On the other hand, progressives tend to be the profiles flocking towards the Ideas-base: Conceptualizers, Promoters, and especially Ideators.
  • The Experimenter is an intriguing profile located right between the Systems- and Ideas-bases on the TIPS Profiling Map. Experimenters enjoy improving what needs fixing but also dislike reinventing the wheel. Stretching across the force field, they feel the turbulent tension that they both like traditions and need to change some perceived wrongs of existing things.
  • The other TiPS profiles (All-Rounder, Coach, Partner, and Theorist) tend to be more neutral spectators in the tug of war and may join one side or the other as the contest unfolds.

Trading the counterbalancing forces in the tug of war between tradition and progress

As my commendation for the ceremonies of HM the Queen’s ultimate rite of passage indicates, tradition and preservation have their worth — and so do innovation and creative transformation. How can we strike a balance between the two poles? How can we bridge the divide between the two opposite forces and acknowledge the value of each while also noticing the negative aspects if one side is too dominant?

  • If you consider yourself a progressive, you are a vital force of renewal in society, business, and life. At the same time, be aware that a group, organization, or culture can only absorb a certain amount of change at a time without getting overwhelmed by it. Too much change unfolding uncontrolled often results in chaos and disintegration of order and the rule of law. Think of the first years after the collapse of the former Soviet Union; while it brought many positive changes and new freedoms to the people, it was also a chaotic period of disintegration and “Wild West” capitalism that later led to the resurfacing of forces of the old order. As such, introduce innovations and positive change gradually to give the majority of people a chance to adjust and keep up with it.
  • If you pride yourself on being a traditionalist, you help carry on worthwhile past customs, rituals, and practices in the here and now. However, be aware that “Tradition is the illusion of permanence.” (Woody Allen) So, beware of being locked in too many customs, rituals, and traditions that weigh you down, like carrying heavy baggage. Beware of holding on to a long-gone past that prevents you from enjoying the innovative blessings of modern life. Here, recall the words of the British playwright and novelist W. Somerset Maugham: “Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” So, keep those traditions, customs, and rituals widely loved by most of society. Such revered traditions include rites of passage (like the recent ceremonial passing of the reign in the UK or the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony signaling the peaceful transition of power in the US every four years), treasured public holidays (think of Easter, Christmas, or Thanksgiving in the Western hemisphere), and celebrations of achievements like commencement ceremonies.
“At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10,000 men to guard the past.”

— Maurice Maeterlinck, Belgian dramatist

Conclusion: Get ready for new rounds of the tug of war in the 2020s

“Tradition can, to be sure, participate in a creation, but it can no longer be creative itself,” noted the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange. The highly dynamic 2020s will provide both staunch traditionalists and committed progressives with ample opportunities to play new rounds of their “tug of war”-game to muscle out a favorable balance between the preservation of honorable traditions, customs, rituals, and practices on the one hand and the introduction of meaningful change (= innovation) and progress in business and society on the other hand. The advent of the Sixth Wave of technology innovation (LINK) will force many long-established corporates in Third- and Fourth Wave-industries to creatively transform their products, business models, and cultures to avoid the fate of creative destruction. These technological changes will go hand in hand with a generational shift in the workplace, where the Baby Boomers are retiring and the Post-Millennials (aka Gen Z) enter the workforce. This generational renewal will change how organizations organize work and likely add more forces tugging for progress. But tradition is a strong counterforce, so expect “the Empire to strike back” sooner or later.

  • Force Field Analysis is a technique in our X-IDEA toolbox that is useful to investigate forces pro and against a proposed change (or new idea). I discussed the benefits and application process in a recent article that you can find here.
  • TIPS, Thinkergy’s talent and innovator profiling system, can give insights into who is more likely to drive and support meaningful change and who is more inclined to advocate for preservation. Interestingly, both forces are needed, as established business units and practices can generate the cash flow today to help move organizations towards those new business fields that will make them prosper in the future. Check out this video to understand how TIPS works and is conceptually designed.
  • What is your TIPS profile? Find out by investing USD 88.88 and taking the TIPS test now.
  • Thinkergy offers highly insightful TIPS training courses for companies, as part of which we also profile all participating delegates. Contact us if you want to learn more.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2022. This article is earmarked to be copublished in a shorter version in the Bangkok Post in the coming weeks.