Angie Lang



By Angie Lang

Tradition and Innovation: How the Two Can Coexist

“That’s how we do things around here”.
“We’ve always done things this way”.

I have heard these statements many times.

There were times when it was okay to resist change. We don’t live in those times.

There are societies, companies and organisations that were built on maintaining the status quo. Families started businesses that they passed to the next generation, along with the accumulated knowledge and belief systems. To deviate from time honoured practices and processes could upset many people, and because of the few ways knowledge was transferred, change was slow by todays standard. Incremental change and improvements drove growth, until an industry was radically disrupted, usually by a competitor. It would be a very brave person that would cannibalise the business that supported their family and community.

When innovators like Nikola Tesla created something wildly futuristic, they were sometimes labelled as eccentric, not because their inventions were failures, but because they came into a world that was not ready for them. Generations ago, when innovators lacked the modalities to communicate their ideas to a broad and willing audience, few had the network capabilities to mobilise enough people to create a new market. Of the consumers, suppliers and influencers which would be required to adopt and drive a new market, many were locked in to a “way of doing things”.

With time people adapted. Political change, scarcity of resources, competitive forces, evolving preferences and network effects create great capabilities for faster adaptation to new invention and innovation. We now accept that change is inevitable and rapid. In modern companies the utterance of the statement, “that’s how we do things around here”, should sound the loudest of warning bells.

At the beginning of the second module of study in the Diploma of Strategy and Innovation we are examined on the learnings of the first module. This exam takes place in the Examination Schools at Oxford University, a historic building. We are wearing a uniform, a traditional academic dress called sub fusc, that has not changed in hundreds of years. We are focussed on creating innovative organisations and products of the future. We are encouraged to explore contrarian beliefs and like Peter Thiel ask: “What do you see or believe to be true, that nobody agrees with?”

The dichotomy between tradition and innovation could not be clearer. Interestingly, in 2015 the students of Oxford University were given the opportunity to vote to remove the sub fusc tradition and to modernise the university’s image, 75% voted to maintain it. Removing sub fusc requirements may have been considered innovation, but innovation for innovation’s sake could lead to a loss of what makes an organisation unique.

Removing a dress requirement seems like a benign activity, but how could it affect the culture and identity of Oxford University as an organisation? While I don’t propose it would affect the quality of education, the Oxford brand may erode as it loses its ties to reminders of the history that has gone before it. The culture and people are linked through a rich history, and yet this is a place that educates and innovates for the future.

I believe Säid Business School does this by “exploiting” the history, reputation and trust in education at Oxford. This creates a strong brand which draws people from all over the world, from diverse industries and with different ideas. The educators are inspiring, experienced and thought provoking, encouraging students to “explore” the ideas that change the world.

Innovation and strategy that will improve tomorrow sees many organisations looking forward in an effort to stay ahead of competitors or to remain relevant. This has been an accepted approach to growth. Equally important are looking back to learn how we got here, looking inwards to understand why we exist and what makes our organisations and ideas special, and looking outwards so we can connect, collaborate and effectively use our networks for good.

This is what I’m learning at SBS Oxford.
Because “that’s how we do things around here”.

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