One of the things I enjoy most about going out for dinner is the wine ritual. After the selection is made, there is the presentation of the bottle, the flawless uncorking (or unscrewing) of the cap, the initial pour to sample, then the enjoyment that comes from sharing a great bottle with friends. This ritual provides structure to the meal and sets a tone for the remainder of the evening.
As part of the upcoming Compass Forum (click here for more information), I will be discussing how rituals, as an element of culture, influence business performance. A reasonable question to ask is how a ritual is distinct from a business process. It is common to refer to annual processes, such as budgeting or performance reviews, as rituals which must be executed, but is this accurate?
A ritual, like a business process, includes a prescribed set of activities to be performed. Unlike a process, however, ritual also encompasses the behaviors and motivations which launch those activities. In this sense, ritual lurks just below process.
Consider a typical meeting you attend. The agenda will crisply outline the objectives, topics, and timing for the meeting, but does it say anything about the dynamics that will push the discussion forward? How about the way the meeting is facilitated? How do others offer their opinions? Is dissent encouraged or avoided? In your next meeting, focus on the group dynamic to understand how each person in the room may view the ritual differently.
So how does understanding the role of rituals allow us to drive performance? Rituals act as the canary in the coal mine, warning us of how much resistance to expect when launching an initiative to change business operations. All you have to look at is how those who break rituals are punished by the group to understand the iron strength with which they structure culture. Achieving higher performance requires cultural change which requires a redefinition of supporting rituals.
No screwcaps here—tackling rituals to improve performance is like opening a bottle of champagne. You have to be steady, remove the safety guards, and be prepared for loud pops, but what a great reward for your efforts.