Ritual-based Change versus Continuous Change

This year when the New Year came around, my 11 year old daughter told me that resolutions were pointless because it’s just another year, same as any other. I remember thinking that when I started becoming entrenched in all-things-agile, I thought it was smart to improve when necessary instead of thinking we couldn’t change something about our personal lives until New Years made it ok. Actually, I thought it would make me look smarter to take that stance. You know, us consultants are always trying to figure out how to outsmart each other!

Not only is our organization under the perception of the constant threat of disruption, or extinction, our personal lives are bombarded with change daily. I’ve seen so many organizations that attempt to transform by adding new processes, layers of management, and/or new rules to follow, but few get rid of old processes/meetings/rules, or what-have-you.

Much like we treat New Years as a way to wipe the slate clean, and start over, what rituals could we establish in our organizations to bring closure to old ways of working? We can start by answering a few questions:

What weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual rituals exist, and what’s their purpose?

The list might include:

  • annual budgeting/planning
  • annual performance management
  • weekly department meetings
  • quarterly improvement initiatives
  • monthly (or weekly/bi-weekly) retrospectives
  • annual meet-the-numbers layoffs
  • budget freeze time
  • code freeze time

All organizations have a natural ebb and flow to how they operate. I worked with one organization where Black Friday and Christmas were their two biggest, most critical, highest revenue generating, and busiest times. Those are the perfect opportunities to design a new set of rituals around working on the business, instead of in it.

For example, in their case, support and uptime matter the most (to keep things simple). So staff a skeleton crew, with a clear escalation procedure to make sure operations run smoothly while the rest of the org spends a week running open spaces, improvement events, fixing technical annoyances that piled up over the year, and more.

Sometimes we get too caught up in making sure teams are busy and lose sight of how easily some improvements can.

Action: make a list of all company-wide rituals, their purpose, what happens at them, who’s there (and who isn’t, but should be!), and how valuable they are.

What Rituals Can We Kill, or Re-purpose?

Agile in particular brings extra work to people. Not only do people on teams need to handle their existing workloads and meetings, now there’s this irritating Agile Coach trying to get you to do agile-y things. That might include using a stickynote wall in addition to the tool, or a new agile tool that duplicates the effort the team needs to spend managing work because they still have to use the mandated enterprise tool.

I remember the CEO at a company I worked for who came by my desk and said “ok, time to go to the meeting you hate…“, and it wasn’t that I hated the meeting, it was that I thought that ritual had run its course and it was time to kill it, or evolve it because it became a mindless status update.

Now that you have a list of existing rituals, what can be tweaked or killed-off?

Action: Instead of adding something new, try to re-purpose an existing ritual and ask the question: “how do we <talk about this topic> now? what forum exists and what’s missing from it?”

Get in a Rut!

There are enough improvement frameworks out there to shake a stick at, so pick one and remember that throughout human history, rituals have existed as a way for people to connect to each other, share stories, argue, organize work, and more. If you are suffering from change fatigue, remember, that term was invented in a different time period.  I’m assuming pre-internet days because most of what we know about change was born pre-information-age era, and I can’t find a definitive answer to when and how that term came to be.

Today, change fatigue is a completely different animal and I think rethinking our approach to organizational rituals can help save our brains, and help us get into a groove. The key is to know when to sunset rituals in favour of new ones.

Remember, if you’re an employee in an organization, you have more of a luxury of time than external coaches and consultants do. Staying in a rut can be a good thing because it’ll provide clarity on what really needs to change. Some people are more biased toward action and may want to change things too often, while others would rather not change anything at all because they value traditions.

Great organizations progress when there is positive friction between people with both of these stances, so don’t beat yourself, and your organization, up so much when you leave this article and head over to Linked In where pretty much everyone is telling you how terrible your company is. Odds are you’re doing a lot better than we sometimes give you credit for.

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