Tradition and nostalgia: Barriers to innovation?

“This is how we do things here which made us successful. It’s tradition.” This was what the owner of a furniture and home furnishings business replied when I asked why his workers are still using their bare hands to design, cut and saw, assemble and package, while there are already available and inexpensive technologies to make some of the processes more efficient. Even the way his company promotes its products are still the traditional attendance to exhibitions, while many global players present online, putting up their digital and virtual catalogues.

As a result, his sales has dwindled over the years, driven by Chinese competitors that use digital designing, 3D printing, and automated assembly and packaging. What’s worse for our local entrepreneurs is that the entry of Ikea in 2020, with its inexpensive and do-it-yourself home furnishings, and digital catalogue and ecommerce capabilities, will bring down the sales of players, if not totally close their shops.

Fanatically adhering to tradition and romanticizing the past through nostalgia are an issue facing many business owners today, especially those of first-generation founders. We would hear comments like “This is how we became successful,” or “Why change if it’s not broken,” or “This is how we’ve been doing it for the past decades” from entrepreneurs and even successful business executives, symptomatic of the resistance to change that precludes innovation.

A tradition in business and organization context is a belief or behavior passed down with the organization employees with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. Common examples include how a company rewards employees, how it celebrates certain occasions, or how it conducts its operations.

Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations, such as how the business owner started and grew the business, or how the first employees worked with old tools and practices. Nostalgia can fool us in living in the past, thinking that the old ways are better.

While tradition and nostalgia are good in preserving the history and practices of organizations, overzealously sticking to them forms an organization mindset and culture that thwarts innovation.

We’ve seen these in several organizations. The tradition-and-nostalgia-led culture lingers in past successes, reinforces this through old practices, and prevents new innovative employees from assimilating in the organization.

Tradition and nostalgia as barriers to innovation is also supported by several studies. One is that of psychologist JN Sheth who studied the psychology of innovation resistance. He argues that “users having strong habits toward an existing practice will resist greatly to innovation. Therefore, users of an old technology-based product will be likely resist to any substituting innovation if they have a strong habit of performing a specific practice with their old product.”

Another is that of Chen, Tsai and Hsieh who studied the effects of received barriers on innovation resistance. They averred that “tradition barrier is a type of perception barrier that causes innovation resistance due to the deviation of innovations from traditionally perceived concepts.”

Tradition and nostalgia that results in policies and procedures, inflexible and rigid organizational structures, and a culture of playing by the rules, are keeping employees from participating, stifling any innovative or creative processes. This oppressive environment has a tendency to force employees to conform to accepted patterns and rules. This hampers creative thinking and new ideas.

How entrepreneurs and business executives can avert these is by considering some of the traditions as those that can be relaxed, changed, updated or eliminated to make allowances for the innovative process to flourish. Some of that tradition and nostalgic stories passed on to employees can maintained, especially if these results in organization pride and growth.

In this age when competition can come from all fronts, bringing innovative products and ways of working, it’s requisite that business executives adopt and open and innovative mindset.

The author is the president and chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation firm. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at