What Do Rituals Have To Do With Business?

I had a boss once who had three levels of acknowledgement. When he was being briefed on a project or program and he agreed he would say just that: “Agreed”. It meant you had his approval. If he said “Understood”, he got what you were saying but didn’t necessary like what you were doing. If he said “Noted”, you had failed. It got to the point were we were anticipating his response, cheering when somebody got the coveted “Agreed”, and moaning when somebody failed and got the dreaded “Noted”. It gave us a sense of shared community and took some of the sting out the rebuke. It spurred us on to do better next time.

Every organization has its own language, rituals, and rhythm. Military and para-militaries are an obvious example, as are religious groups. But also businesses volunteer and community groups, sports teams, and families all have their accepted ways of communicating and making decisions. Some are more functional than others.

Discipline or Regret

Communications need a structure. “You can run your business with discipline, or you can run you business with regret.”* I would add that you also need to run you business with intent. Every meeting, celebration, and contact inside and outside a business need to support the purpose and vision of that company. Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings each need their own purpose. They need to follow a simple format with some structure. And when things are busy, that doesn’t mean fewer meetings.

Focused, clear communications are even more important when we’re under the gun. An army unit can give us a great example of this. When an infantry company is in garrison, training, or otherwise in a relaxed state weekly briefings are probably sufficient. Would this be acceptable in theatre, or in combat operations? Absolutely not. So why is it acceptable for businesses to complain that they don’t have time for meetings? They’re right, in a way. They don’t have time for unfocused, un-informative, un-productive meetings.

If people hate meetings in your company, it’s probably because you run them badly, and your leadership doesn’t know how or doesn’t have the fortitude to run them correctly. It’s a basic management skill that every leader needs to learn and practise.

Your Meeting Checklist

Here are a couple of items you can check the meetings you run. They’re not rocket science, but like the skating and puck-handling in hockey, if you don’t have mastery of the basics then you can’t move to the next level.

Give yourself a passing grade only if you can say yes to all of the following:

1. It starts on time
2. Only the people who need to be there are invited and show up
3. It has an agenda that is distributed ahead of time
4. It sticks to the agenda
5. Everybody is physically, mentally, and emotionally present and contributes to the conversation, debate, or decision without fear of retribution or punishment for speaking honestly
6. It ends on time
7. Who is going to what by when has been decided, written down, and distributed to all attendees

If It’s Not Your Meeting

Even if it’s not your meeting to run, there are still some things you can do to make meetings in your organization more effective:

1. Sit up and pay attention. Face whoever is speaking. It’s a great opportunity to build relationships by supporting your fellow dwellers of whatever particular level of hell you’re trapped in together.

2. Put away your laptop and smart-phone. This is a variation of the previous point. You’re not fooling anybody with your “Blackberry Prayer”, and it’s insulting that you think they are How about turning off the laptop and actually being present instead of just doing your e-mail in the same room as a bunch of other people who are ignoring each other?

If You’re Still Not Convinced

If you’re still not convinced that ritual and structure have a place in business consider this. When Scouting was established in 1907, it got started with a set of rituals. Ceremonies for opening a meeting, closing a meeting, inducting new members, passing graduating members out. The Scouts learn ceremonies for deciding discipline for their peers, planning camping activities, and running campfires.

First they learn the “ritual”, and within that they make all the decisions and execute their work (going to camp, cooking their own food, earning merit badges). The structure of the patrols and troop give the youth the process they need to make and carry out their decisions. The same rituals work if it’s just a local Scout troop meeting with a dozen kids, or a World Jamboree with 10,000.

So how would it feel if a troop of fifteen-year-old boys and girls ran and executed meetings better than your company does? Who provides the “adult” supervision in your company?

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What’s the worst meeting you’ve been in? The best? Does your company have standard agendas for daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual meetings?

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