Innovation and Tradition – The Genius of the AND

From Tradition to Innovation – The Grand Challenge facing many large organizations

Dave Whittington, December 17, 2014

I was making a presentation and facilitating a conversation about innovation last week in Vancouver. The final part of my presentation was about the organizational context in which innovators need to operate and the challenges faced in many large organizations. During the ensuing conversation one participant observed that we perhaps needed to better understand how to make a business case for innovation. That got me thinking, and hence this blog.

I’m going to simplify things to make my case, and I know that real life is always more complex, but I think some of the ideas here might have value all the same. The normal route to a business case for innovation would go something like this. List what is wrong with the current state, and paint a vivid picture of the advantages to be gained by being innovative. On the face of it this makes a lot of sense. When you look at established models for leading change, such as John Kotter’s seven steps, we see the need to clearly state what is wrong with the current situation and communicate a vision of where we should be going.

There’s a downside to this approach, and I’m going borrow heavily from Barry Johnson’s work on Polarity Management to explain why. Let’s start by assuming that Tradition and Innovation are two sides of a polarity. So in any large organization there will be fans of tradition and fans of Innovation and they compete with each other for attention. There will be zealots on either side, but reasonable people would have to accept that there are positives and negatives on both sides. The first step in managing this polarity is to map the positives and negatives for either side.

Tradition Innovation Polarity

Now we can see where the normal business case fits. It’s a clear call for a move from bottom left (the downside of tradition) to top right (the upside of innovation). The problem with this straightforward call to action is that it only acknowledges half of the issues and has the effect of further polarizing the situation with each camp becoming more firmly entrenched in their beliefs that “the other side” just doesn’t “get it”.

Why innovators need to embrace tradition

The way out of this is simple, but somewhat counter intuitive, and not a part of any model for leading change that I’ve ever seen. We first need to accept that there are positives on both sides. There are also negatives on both sides. If we are to have any chance of bringing on board the tradition bearers in the organization, we have to acknowledge the legitimacy of their perspective. We have to change the conversation from a left vs. right argument, to a top vs. bottom dialogue, because we can all (except for some of the extremists perhaps) appreciate the value of the positives on both sides and acknowledge the potential negatives of both too.

The business case goes something like this. “There are some real positives to the traditions we’ve built up in this organization and we do not want to lose them. We also acknowledge that there are potential pitfalls if a push to being more innovative isn’t well thought through. However, right now, we need innovate in some critical areas because our current way of doing things is not serving us as well as it has done in the past.”

You see, instead of simply talking about the down side of bottom left and up side of top right, we’ve acknowledged the whole system. We’ve also done this in a very particular order that involves acknowledging the position of the tradition bearers first, and making the case for innovation second. There’s a basic rule of communication that says that people are more likely to listen after they first know that they have been heard.

This shift to valuing both the positives of innovation and the positives of tradition is a great example of moving away from either-or thinking and as Jim Collins clearly stated in Built to Last, “embracing the genius of the ‘and’”. More recently, this capacity to reconcile what look like oppositional ideals was recognized as a critical skill for organizational leaders by Roger Martin in The Opposable Mind. This cognitive skill is also a key component of great innovators. According to Dyer and Gregersen, Associational Thinking is a key cognitive skill in the Innovator’s DNA.

To summarize, if we are to make an effective case for more innovation in the large organizations we work in, we have to embrace the genius of the ‘and’, practice associational thinking, and acknowledge the value of the traditional.

Tell a different story

The way we talk about our situations really does contribute to the outcome. What are your “favorite” stories and how do they help or hinder you?


Change your shoes

We can become entrenched in our attitudes and beliefs. Change viewpoints … assume you are one of your team members and watch your energy shift. If you are having difficulty with this one, find a pair of shoes that are quite different and walk around in them for a while. Symbolically this might help you shift your perspective and energy and communicate differently with your team members.

Today’s blog is based on the 4 of diamonds, a communications teamwork tip from our Teamwork Explorer.

Go on a story walk

I was inspired to read about Hubspot’s CEO, Brian Halligan, who takes employees on off site “story walks” to build trust and organizational culture.


How to kill an idea

Just utter one of these very overused phrases and watch the energy get sucked out of the room.


What’s the leader’s role in creativity?

One of our favourite workshops to facilitate is creativity and some leaders get nervous about the idea of holding back on critical analysis of their employees’ wild ideas. For some, the idea of defining the boundaries or playing field helps them empower their people while allowing them to sleep at night 😉


What type of change leader are you?

Today’s visual was inspired by a provocative blog that suggested leaders fall into two main styles when leading change. While I’m not sure about there only being two styles, what I do agree with is the notion that we need to figure out our style and remain true to that.


Gnarly roots

While out walking on the beach a month ago, I ran across this fallen tree with the most amazing gnarly roots. It reminded me of the complexity of interpersonal communications on some teams. We sometimes need a lot of patience to unravel issues and get back on the same page.


Everything is just fine …

I’m teaching a teams workshop with the University of Alberta today, and inevitably someone talks about being on a team that goes sideways. What I find fascinating is that most times people know something has been brewing but thought it would just “blow over.” Trust me, it never does. It takes courage to surface issues and may feel uncomfortable but that is a whole lot better than dealing with the broken trust that happens after things blow up.


How aligned are you?

Having a powerful vision is one of the defining characteristics of leaders, especially when it comes to leading teams. While devoting time to creating understanding among team members about your vision is important, regularly checking in with and creating alignment is even more important. Regularly check in with the vision through asking the following:

    What do you think we should start/stop doing on this team (project)?
    What are the three best and three worst examples of us living our vision?
    On a scale of 1-10 how are people doing, how is our stress level, how do we feel about the progress on the project, etc.?
    What is one thing we need to do to better align our actions with our vision?

This blog is based on the 3 of hearts from our Teamwork Explorer cards.