Managing the tradition: innovation conflict in the family business

Managing the tradition: innovation conflict in the family business
Dennis Owusu OTENG

Technological advancement has created a generational gap in the Family Business (FB). Today’s tech-savvy youth are taking full advantage of a wide range of tools and apps that were unimaginable while the senior generation was growing the business.

This generational gap sometimes leads to conflict between the older folk and next generation of the family business. Often, the senior generation does not understand demands of the younger generation while the younger generation seemingly does not understand the ‘archaic’ style of the older generation.

Take, for example, the family-business owner who tried to arrange a trip with his daughter to introduce her to the various business properties that she would eventually inherit. His daughter was reluctant to make the physical trip when she could quite easily see the properties virtually by viewing them on Google Maps. This created some friction between father and daughter. “How on earth will a Google map help her understand a legacy,” thought the father.

This story illustrates how the older generation tends to hold onto traditional ways of doing things in an effort to keep the legacy alive, while the younger generation typically wants to embrace innovation. While tradition and innovation are often seen as opposites, a successful family business is one that finds a way to blend aspects of tradition with the ever-changing opportunities which innovation can create.

In their 2016 study, De Massis et al conceptualised a new innovation strategy called Innovation Through Tradition (ITT). They postulated that firms which build long-lasting and intimate links with their traditions can be extremely innovative while remaining firmly anchored to lessons of the past. This article also relates tradition to the ‘Baby Boomers’ and innovation to the ‘Millennials’. Let’s discuss the difference between ‘Boomers’ and ‘Millennials’ and the implications for family businesses.

Boomer Parents and Millennial Kids

Mark McCrindle, in his book ‘The ABC of XYZ, Understanding the Global Generations’, outlined the classes of generation and range of their birth-years as follows:

  • Federation Generation (1901 – 1924);
  • Builders Generation (1925 – 1945);
  • Baby Boomers (1946 – 1964);
  • Generation X (1965 – 1979);
  • Generation Y (1980 – 1994);
  • Generation Z (1995 – 2009);
  • Generation Alpha (2010 – 2022).

The current elderly leaders of the FB are mostly Baby Boomers, and their successors are mostly Millennials. Technological savviness magnifies the difference between these two generations.

The Baby Boomer generation is known for creating their own future.  With fewer options of secure jobs following World War II, many founded their own business. Boomers set high expectations for themselves; and because of their determination to make something of their lives, they were often referred to as the ‘me’ generation. They had a strong work ethic, and worked long hours to achieve their goals.

Millennials, on the other hand, are the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media. They are sociable, optimistic, talented, well-educated, collaborative, open-minded, influential and achievement-oriented. They have always been closely supported by their helicopter parents, and so expect to continue feeling sought after, needed and indispensable. They arrived in the workplace with higher expectations than previous generations.

If their expectations are not met, they are so well-connected that they can tell thousands of their cohorts with one click of the mouse. Their characteristics translate into a generation of employees with a different outlook. They are confident and want their voice to be heard. They speak their mind rather than go by the “obey before complain” discipline. Also, they want to be included in the decision-making process of the business.

Typically, they dislike menial work, lack the skills for dealing with difficult people, and can be impatient to get the experience needed to move up the ladder. They have high expectations of their role in the FB; they want to work with positive people, to be challenged, to be treated respectfully, to gain new knowledge and skills, to work in friendly environments, to have flexible schedules and to be paid well.

All these characteristics describe the ideal situation for the majority of nextgens. Family business leaders should be aware of generational differences and adopt strategies to manage the challenges that are created because of the generational gap.

How to Manage Millennials

Innovation is necessary for the survival of a business, and Millennials have a flair for innovation that stems from the era in which they were born. They are sometimes referred to as the generation because of growing up when the Internet, cell phones and other digital technologies hit mainstream. With the speed of technological innovation over the past few decades, it’s not surprising that this generation sees innovation as a must.

Notwithstanding, traditions highlight the foundation of a business. Traditions help people to know and understand the customs or beliefs of the business-family which have been passed on from generation to generation. It is expedient for millennials to recognise and celebrate these traditions while innovating into the future. At the same time, it is imperative for the senior generation to accept the need for innovation to address complacency and ensure regeneration of the family business.

Twist the Leadership Approach for the Next Generation

Today’s youth are extensively connected to and shaped by their peers. McCrindle’s research found that while nearly all the generations have the same number of close friends (an average of 13), Millennials have almost twice as many Facebook friends than other generations. And so the network that influences them is greater numerically, geographically and, being technology based, is connected 24/7.

The social definition of today’s youth calls for a different leadership approach. Unlike previous generations who are very comfortable with verbal communication, employing visuals results in more effective communication with Millennials. Millennials don’t want to just sit and listen; they want to see and do. Don’t dictate to them, but rather allow them to build experience through trying.

The way to foster learning in this rising generation is to facilitate the process – but not to be the teacher. In the work environment, it is better to coach rather than instruct them.  They must be guided to build knowledge by themselves. This implies that they should be guided through the learning process but not bombarded with content or instructions. Note that their propensity for social connection shows they need to feel they belong, and will try to avoid situations which may subject them to rejection.

Debunk the Hand-basket Theory

The handbasket theory is an adage that says “today’s kids are going to hell in a handbasket” – meaning that “kids just ain’t no good these days”.  There is a myth that today’s youth are rude and don’t learn morals in school. They are described as having no respect. Admittedly, there are some bad Millennials – just as there are bad examples in every generation.  Some beliefs about today’s youth are without fact, and may be accounted for by their curious nature.

Generally speaking, Millennials represent the active working group in the FB. Family Business leaders should look at the positive attributes millennials can bring into the business. This generation is highly globalised and has the mindset to push the business across borders. Millennials are the first generation to be fully global. Through technology, they are more culturally diverse in their music, movies, fashion, foods, online entertainment, social trends and communications. Even the ‘must watch YouTube videos and memes’ are global as never before.

Blocking the possibilities of innovating across borders because of myths is harmful. Myths are widely-held but false beliefs or ideas. Myths create stereotypes for the exuberant youth, and this may cause them to chart their own path rather than follow the family’s traditions. They want to be accepted, but believing in myths may push them away. These kids are not ‘bad’ as the hand-basket theory suggests.

They are gifted and want the opportunity to show what they can do. Managers should create an acceptance culture within the organisation. There should be moments when the younger members are given an opportunity to convene meetings with the older generation. Let them be heard. Don’t push them away, or else they will form alliances outside the family which may be difficult to change.

Give them Challenging Tasks

Millennials dislike menial work, and multi-tasking is an inherent skill. Millennials want learning opportunities. They are looking for growth, development and a career path.  They want to be challenged in the workplace. The saying that “a tea-bag is just a bag until it is put in hot water” describes the daring abilities of millennials.

Leaders of Millennials should mentor them to develop their talents. They should be guided on the benefits of traditions and values. Their potential can be harnessed when they are given challenging tasks. Allow them to try new things and assign them to projects which help them learn. For example, set up a reverse-mentoring programme for members of the rising generation. Business owners can learn from companies that set up tutoring for middle-aged executives whereby young newcomers helped those executives navigate the Internet and other technologies.

Jack Welch of General Electric fame says: that “e-business knowledge is usually inversely proportional to age and rank”. GE matched 1,000 managers with 1,000 young employees. Even though the younger cohort had just joined the firm, they understood new technologies better than GE’s finest. A reverse-mentoring programme like this can be a way to challenge younger generations and result in better succession.

The Next Generation can be the Strategic Advantage 

Today’s business environment is VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. In this highly competitive business environment, family businesses need to recognise that their biggest differentiator is their people. Organisational life cycles have become shorter and steeper, and there is no time to slow down after a successful change or transition of leadership.

Businesses are advised to use their human capital resources to gain a competitive advantage. As millennials grew up in a complex world where there was a burgeoning of fast food, fast Internet, fast trains and fast everything, they can be extremely valuable in the FBs’ bid to survive and thrive. Organisations that emerge as winners in the battle for talent will have had their fingers on the pulse of the new generation. They will have designed specific techniques for recruiting, managing, motivating and retaining them.

It is said that ‘the higher you want to go, the deeper you must be grounded’. Millennials who understand tradition and can marry that tradition with innovation are well-grounded. They will have many of the traditional attributes of love, kindness, honesty, commitment, integrity and perseverance.

By emphasising and developing their strengths, Millennials will have a future of hope and opportunity, and overcome any of their generation’s weaknesses and shortfalls. They will grow as individuals and future leaders while becoming committed to the future success of the family business.

The writer is the Chief Executive Officer, Ravens Consulting GH (Family Business Consultancy)


De Massis, A., Frattini, F., Kotlar, J., Petruzzelli, A. M., & Wright, M. (2016). Innovation through tradition: Lessons from innovative family businesses and directions for future research. Academy of management Perspectives30(1), 93-116.

McCrindle, M., & Wolfinger, E. (2009). The ABC of XYZ: Understanding the global generations. University of New South Wales Press: Sydney.


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