Managing Disruption Versus Tradition

We live in uncertain times. That’s what everybody says these days.


Our media is full of discussions about the turbulence of our times, about the challenges of AI, about the sudden and unpredictable global political changes; businesses like Uber seek to disrupt everything about the way we live. Things that we might have taken for granted even as recently as two years ago are up in the air – think Brexit, Donald Trump, et al. And, consequently, we – societies, businesses, communities and individuals – are struggling to make sense of a fast-changing, unpredictable world. We’ve even coined the phrase VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) to describe our current state (although, ironically enough, even this phrase is much older than we might think, being coined in the 1990s by the US Army).

We tend to think of this as a recent development. However, although it’s fair to say that technology has made the speed and the scale of change more complex, it was almost 2,500 years ago that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that “everything changes and nothing remains still”. Change has always been with us, and resistance to change is probably as old as change itself.

When I was a kid, I watched “Fiddler on the Roof” with my parents. Having not seen it again since, I watched it again a few years ago, and found it touching and rather delightful. It also made a different and lasting impression on me, and I think about some of its themes often. At the start of the film, the lead character, Tevye the milkman, talks about how to live in changing and uncertain times “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years.”

It’s a lovely film, which might well provide some comfort in troubling times, but, seen with today’s eyes, life in a Jewish shtetl in early 20th century Russia seem like a relic from another world. A lot of the traditions which might, indeed, help us to keep our balance, are also out-dated and conforming to old gender and other stereo-types, none of which would have been changed without disruption and challenge.

This dynamic between change and tradition is often represented as a conflict between age and youth. A quick search online reveals countless articles about how to work with millennials, how to manage generational conflict in the workplace and so on. And, just as it’s always been, yesterday’s young will be tomorrow’s old – millennials can be threatened by Generation Z. Yesterday’s disrupters and revolutionaries are today’s conservatives and establishment figures. And so it goes.

The salient theme here is that of the inherent tension between disruption and tradition. Without our traditions, we might lose touch with who we are, what’s most important to us, but without disruption, then we would never progress whether in terms of technology or in challenging old prejudices and correcting wrongs. More bluntly, youth thinks that it knows everything and believes that it will live forever; elders know that they will die, and believe that there is nothing new under the sun.

As with any polarised dynamic, it’s easy to fall into one camp and then see that as ‘right’. We might find ourselves harking back to a time before the internet, or before every child had a smartphone (as I do when talking to my god-children’s parents, for example). Or we might find ourselves wanting to challenge and push at everything about the status quo, trying to persuade everyone that only what’s new is of value.

The challenge for all of us is how to navigate this dynamic, without being absolutist about it. I think Tevye had it about right when he said that “without traditions our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof”, but so did Bob Dylan when he sang that “he not busy being born is busy dying”. How to stay fresh and alive and engaged with the world as it unfolds and emerges without losing ourselves – how to hold on to something that connects us with who we are and what matters, whilst not being rigid and unwilling to question old and out-dated or discriminatory attitudes.

From my own experience and work, I’ve found that, when I am connected to myself and to my values, when I take time to do this regularly, then I am less defensive or rigid when I am faced with something that challenges my own status quo. There’s a paradox in this, of course, but I think that paradox is at the heart of any polarity – as Niels Bohr said, “the opposite of any great truth is another great truth.” In addition to containing paradox, this enquiry is not one that leads to a definitive answer – the dynamic is itself something to live and experience.

Aboodi Shabi is an executive coach and coach-trainer, who specialises in helping leaders manage complexity and uncertainty.

He is running a one-day workshop for coaches in November in Brighton

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 © Aboodi Shabi 2017 –


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