June 14, 2005

If You Change Tradition ....

When you’re trying to bring about change you can make some erroneous assumptions that unnecessarily trip you up. One of the most common I think is that all traditions are bad and reflective of an undesirable status quo.

That’s the assumption I’ve seen trip up a few clients and colleagues in the past few weeks. These generally savvy leaders, in their haste to bring about a major change, demonstrated to others what was perceived as an attitude of contempt for the fact that they value some of the organization’s traditions. People advocating to preserve the tradition were dismissed as defenders of the status quo.

Had these leaders ever seen Fiddler on the Roof, they might have remembered that traditions play an important role in shaping organizational culture and providing continuity among generations. At minimum, by not listening to others's concerns and perspectives more thoughtfully, these leaders were seen as lacking respect for the organization's culture.

Sure, some people cling to outdated traditions in an effort to avoid making changes that would definitely be desirable. But others remain attached to certain traditions because they have great meaning and value within the organizational or institutional culture and legacy. To change them carelessly could undermine years (if not generations) of shared values and meaning.

I’ve always found it helpful to probe a bit more in these cases. I become curious as to why a particular tradition is so valuable and try to identify what meaning people attach to it. With that information in hand, you can engage them in a discussion about potential new ways of doing things that would honor that meaning, but in a more contemporary form.

Chilean biologist and philosopher Humberto Maturana has noted that what is important to consider is not what needs to change, but what is worth preserving. And whether they keep them in their exact present form or put an old tradition's meaning into a new form, leaders can find tremendous value from serving as more vigilant preservationists of organizational meaning.

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