Beware of Those Who Dwell on the Past

My hometown (St. Louis, MO) is big on tradition. St. Louisans like to talk about the winning tradition of the Cardinals baseball team, just as they tend to shy away from the losing traditions of the departed Cardinals’ football team and the Spirits of St. Louis, late of the ABA. That’s natural — who ever heard of “holding onto the BAD times forever”?

Many businesses are big on tradition, too. If they’ve been around for a decade or more, one of their chief talking points is often “a long history of service to (name of) community”. The claim that they’re “steeped in tradition” makes many of us feel secure. We tend to think, “They’ve been there, through all the ups and downs. They know the problems we’re dealing with; they’ve experienced it themselves and they survived.”

Is tradition necessarily a good thing, though? What exactly is “tradition”?

Tradition is the process of handing over beliefs and customs from one generation to the next, usually by word of mouth or by example. (You’ve heard the term “oral tradition”, correct?) Tradition is telling and retelling stories about events that occurred or people who lived. Traditions only became “history” when people started to document them in pictures and words. Even then, they were subject to interpretation and selective – or faulty – memory.

History is written by the victors.”
(origin unknown)

You might have also heard the phrase, “hidebound by tradition”. It’s another way of saying “stuck in the past”. Even in this era of rapid change, many people – and companies – fear the unknown. They prefer not to fix what isn’t broken, eschewing progress for the sake of comfortable…reliable…traditional.

Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.
(George Santayana)

Tradition is OK, but only up to a point. We must be mindful of our mistakes as well as our triumphs and we must take action. Take action to build on your triumphs and avoid – or minimize – your mistakes. Never stop improving.

Does your organization emphasize its traditions in its marketing efforts? Why?

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Posted in Change management, Innovation
3 comments on “Beware of Those Who Dwell on the Past
  1. Lijun Song says:

    Continual improvement based on tradition.

  2. Although it’s secure to hear of a company with a long-standing reputation, a company can’t just rest on their past laurels. You are correct that they must take positive action and never stop improving.

  3. I am in the sustainability field, which offers companies opportunities to innovate and enhance their profitability while reducing their environmental and social impacts. However, leaders need to be open to examining their traditional ways of operating. You have hit the nail on the head with this topic! I wrote about this a month ago if you care to check it out http://sustainability4biz.com/good-old-yankee-ingenuity/

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