The Innovation of Tradition

In a New York Review of Books essay published earlier this month, Charles Rosen explores the role history and tradition play in innovation and creativity. In the piece, he considers short-sighted business strategies in the light of tactics necessary to secure long-term sustainability -- and success.

If the market does not grow fast enough, the most common commercial policy is not to try to sustain the level reached, but to cut back drastically. Canceling a respectable project if it does not promise a fast return is the easiest road to take. Educating a future public would have meant planning in longer terms than the habits of thought of the modern business world are comfortable with.

By analyzing classical music and literature -- particularly Machiavelli -- Rosen looks at the role of a canon and suggests that tradition can be faked.

A sensible opportunist will therefore fake a tradition when he has to. The appeal to tradition is useful both to sustain the system in power and to destroy it. Returning to one's origins in a moment of crisis will alter the origins, and literally transform the past to fit a new sense of desperation or hope. The essential paradox of a canon, however, is that a tradition is often most successfully sustained by those who appear to be trying to attack or to destroy it.

Fascinating stuff. If you reread Robert Townsend's 1970 book Up the Organization, you'll see some of the language used -- and ideas shared by -- Fast Company since our launch. The same goes for Fortune during some of its livelier years. And I like to think of the similarities less as rehashing -- and more as reminding.

Which is why I think John's spot on when he says, "There is no greater power in the world than the force of a great idea." It doesn't matter where the idea comes from -- or whether it's a new idea. Because sometimes, we look into the future for those great ideas -- and as Rosen indicates -- sometimes we look to the past.

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