Several years ago, I wrote a piece–“Differentiating Traditions and Bad Habits”–in which I argued that bad habits often masquerade as traditions (I have cut and pasted it below). I refer to this idea often in order to illustrate the need to spend time discriminating between these two forces that drive and govern so much that we choose to do or conversely don’t choose to do in our institutions. It is vital that in any strategic planning process or other change management process, we take care to identify the traditions that help sustain and further the vision of the institution (or division, or department, etc.). If something the institution does over a period of years fails to sustain or further the institution, it is not a tradition, it is a habit, likely a bad one. This way of understanding the role of tradition is requisite to create a Progress Culture.
Any strategic change process must distinguish between traditions and bad habits. The breakneck speed at which the world is changing and the marketplace of schools, colleges and universities is transforming requires that institutions eliminate, as much as is possible, anything that creates what I will call momentum drag strategically. In essence, bad habits hold an institution back, while traditions not only act to preserve what is most essential, but with thoughtfully coordinated leadership from governance and administration, they also create a healthy foundation for progress.
Differentiating Traditions and Bad Habits (from November 1, 2011)
I have been thinking today about the difference between traditions and bad habits in schools. It can be so difficult to distinguish between the two that we don’t even try to untangle them from the larger cultural fabric of the school. But we must try to do exactly that. It may be helpful to think of it this way: imagine that every school has a ledger that marks the long-term debt of bad habit against the revenue of tradition. My fear is that an audit of that ledger in many of our institutions might reveal that bad habits are costing us more than we choose to recognize. We are drawn to bad habits—they can be seductive, and we often provide them cover by calling them traditions. Bad habits give institutions practice in the arts of rationalization and self-deception.
While traditions bring us together in ways that allow us to reveal our individual best as well as the best of the institution to which we are attached, bad habits are more likely to bring us together in a co-dependence that allows us to repeat myths back and forth to the point we think they represent truth itself.As we engage the conversation in my school regarding how to become a sustainable Progress Culture, it is necessary to identify the real traditions and thus be ready to preserve them against all comers.
It is equally important, however, to spot the bad habits masquerading as traditions. Sometimes what we call traditions are really only atavisms stifling our thinking. And dangerously, in order to preserve such bad habits, we siphon resources—financial resources, as well as resources of good will—away from innovation. Perhaps the worst of our bad habits in schools is our tendency to tell ourselves what we can’t do (or what our constituents will never accept) even when we believe there may be better way forward than the way we have always done things. In so doing we limit our influence, and we diminish our ability to lead. Conversely, if we work diligently to break this bad habit and drive it out of the school, we will extend our influence, and we will increase our ability to lead.