Innovation, Tradition, And Striking The Balance


My son turns eleven today. We are all set to celebrate as we always do – our kids love the traditions that come with birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, college football, and too many other events to mention. The house is decorated exactly the same for every birthday. I’m told they love it that way. There will be a special dinner, as always.

All this tradition and consistency got me thinking. My children certainly love new things and surprises: new adventures, trips to unknown places, crazy experiences. And still, for a handful of personal milestones, they seem to want- to need- something familiar and dependable. Certainly, that is to be expected. New experiences bring excitement, anticipation of something unknown, and the possibility of “total awesomeness” (which, I have to imagine, is what the kids are saying nowadays.) Those traditions, the patterns sought out by their own brains, bring them a sense of stability, safety, and comfort. See my recent innovation webinar for more on this.

The Value of Consistency in Our Professional Lives

Our professional development trajectory, by definition, is based on forward progress and constantly pushing into new territories. As in our personal lives, most of us are excited about those new experiences, as they present us new opportunities to be challenged and to grow. And it is that growth that we (as professionals) see as the greatest similarity between our personal and professional lives. We achieve that growth when we step outside our comfort zone and attack those new, exciting, frightening, exhilarating opportunities.

Does this mean there is no place for traditions, standardization, same-ness in our professional life? I’d like to propose three areas where – for most of us – having those familiar and repeatable touchstones can be critical for our success.

Area(s) of Expertise

I’m not here to argue against learning new approaches and technologies. For most professionals, it is essential. IT developers, medical personnel, and engineers rely on their access to innovation and technical training. Artificial intelligence and augmented reality are pushing more industries to be creative and leading edge. Even in industries such as entertainment and sports, those not embracing inventive approaches are fighting a losing battle for viewers and fans.  And yet, this drive for innovation does not negate the need – by most professionals – to bring a certain level of expertise to their work. This expertise, be it product or service knowledge, network connections, leadership qualities, or project management stills, comes from years of professional experience. It comes from trying and failing, from continually looking for ways to improve, and from going through all the joys and pains that come with a career trajectory.

A Mentor

Maybe I’ve watched too many movies with gray-haired, wise gurus. I can’t help but think that finding magic rings, playing impossible broom-riding sports, or wielding laser swords would be less successful without those elder advisors. So, why don’t these movie heroes patently dismiss the possibly out-of-touch advice of these folks? Mentors, real or imagined, formal or informal, are people we hold in high regard. They bring expertise and experience, most importantly, where we have little or none. Our mentors know our personalities and our tendencies – our typical reactions to challenging situations, our strengths and weaknesses and our overall development trajectory. In many cases, this individual (or individuals) will know where we came from, what is in our past that makes us who we are. All those insights and observations, that our mentors provide us, help to keep us grounded and help to build us. Perhaps both, even at the same time. Most importantly, these critical people in our lives understand – professionally and personally – what is at stake for us as we grow in our positions.

Our Support System

In a way similar to our mentors, those key people around us are critical for insight, guidance, humility, motivation, and 50 other components of how we become who we become. Our family, our close friends and colleagues, provide many benefits to us as we grow professionally. They accept us in spite of our failings. They know how to encourage us. They provide safety and comfort – just like those traditions I mentioned earlier. You would be hard-pressed to find personal and professional success stories that don’t involve multiple instances of influence, acceptance, support, care and love from any one of several family members, close friends and colleagues. On the contrary, even the most innovative and leading edge superstars of our times refer frequently to their spouse, children, college roommate, et al. when listing the keys to their success. Even in Hollywood, the most remembered Academy Award speeches seem to be those where the star tries desperately to share their list of close supporters, as the orchestra urges them offstage.

In Closing

I can’t stress enough that the point here isn’t to stop learning, growing, and disrupting. I’m a huge proponent of just those things and have written about this before. Rather, how can we best find the balance between innovating and stretching, but still balance those with focused effort around those characteristics that form the bedrock of our professional life. The best approach, for some, is to weave the two together. Working on building innovative approaches and solutions into our expertise along the way. Finding mentors who not only know us, but seeking additional mentors who can help us hone in on our innovation journey. And finally, making sure that we stay closely connected to our close-in support system, being intentional and focused about growing and maturing our professional network.