We talk of tradition with reverence: it’s age conveys status and permanence. Hallowed and respected, mythic and old. To talk of change is heresy: change is modern, change is clean, change is unfettered by the shackles of history. Tradition is wood panelled, soot stained and aged for eighteen years with a peaty taste. Change is oily and metallic, plastic and glass.
We hold onto tradition and fear change.
And yet nothing is forever.
A Christmas card arrived from the Netherlands this week, on it, Zwarte Pete, a traditional character who acts as Santa’s helper. But only in the Netherlands. Because anywhere else, it would be unheard of to have a character called ‘Black Pete‘, who is played by a young man wearing black makeup. It would be offensive. When i grew up, there was a range of marmalade whose logo was a similar character, finally outlawed in 2001. Their position became untenable: a hundred years of history was no defence for modern sensibilities. When i grew up, it was common to see that character as a cuddly toy, loved by children. Today, i won’t even type the name, because it’s racist.
The Dutch are having the marmalade debate: on the one hand, to them, the character is part of folklore. A traditional image on a million Christmas cards and celebrated with love and joy in songs and plays. To others, it’s a symbol of repression, racism, colonial legacy and is just plain offensive.
This year, Zwarte Pete in his black makeup was joined by ‘Cheese Pete‘, in yellow makeup: an attempt (although not a very successful one) to adapt, to morph the legacy, the tradition, into something new.
This is how change occurs: by degree or by rift. Currently, there is a debate. A space has been opened up for conversation. Is it change by degree or change by fracture? Will Cheese Pete be one step on the journey, or will a legislative intervention cause a fracture. Will Pete be outlawed, gone the way of the marmalade? Or will he morph into Rainbow Pete. Or maybe Petra.
When i work in one of the eighty countries where homosexuality is still illegal, i have to remind myself that that was the case in my own country until a few short years before i was born. Indeed, in the year i was born the Canadians were still prototyping a farcical machine that could ‘tell‘ if a new recruit in the army was homosexual. Can you imagine that today?
But we have to understand how: when we implement organisational culture change programmes, do we understand how change occurs? Do we understand the difference between increment and fracture? Do we create the spaces for the conversation to occur, or do we impose legislative change? And which approach do we think is most effective?
Sometimes things have to change, but it’s our approach that defines the success. Creating the spaces for the conversation and then listening to what is said. A co-created model. Surely that’s the way.