Wednesday, 17 February 2010

On company rituals and those 'big events' of Homo Corporate

Seth Godin, marketing guru, relentless and restless blogger and Big Brain has written this short piece about ‘not more big (corporate) events’. Here is what he says.

No more big events
Here are things that you can now avoid:
• The annual review
• The annual sales conference
• The big product launch
• The grand opening of a new branch
• Drop dead one-shot negotiation events

The reasons? Well, they don't work. They don't work because big events leave little room for iteration, for trial and error, for earning rapport. And the biggest reason: frequent cheap communication is easier than ever, and if you use it, you'll discover that the process creates far more gains than events ever can.

He is right. And he is very wrong. Believe me, this is not something I say frequently of Seth Godin whose daily blog I read religiously as a free psychotherapy for my often restless brain. Seth is so right that those ‘things’ do not work very well. Many, many, many people, including many clients, agree (sometimes in the corridor or the cafeteria) that those ‘events’ are very inefficient to say the least.

So why do intelligent, professional, usually efficient in many ways, often mindful, possible good managers or leaders, sensible enough people keep doing them!? Rationality is not going to get us anywhere here. Those inefficient and largely not very cost-effective processes or ‘events’ are alive because they are more than processes or events... They are rituals. They serve the extra-functionality of any ritual: they create a glue, a link, a sense of belonging (even if temporary), a ‘reason d’être’, a door to get through, a point in the calendar that provides osme sort of meaning, a punctuation in time, ‘something to go to’, or to’get through’.

Corporate rituals ( and I would include numerous ‘internal events’ and ‘internal processes such as the annual strategic and business plan one) stay because they are rituals, not because they are efficient or even sensible processes/events/things we do. They could be both of course. Business-effective rituals and organisationally-effective rituals, all in one? bingo! But, very often there is a disconnect between the ‘business functionality’ (poor) and the ritual and tribal functionality (very high).

Here is the trick: rituals can’t be suppressed on the grounds of the apparent, visible, prosaic, obvious, declared business objectives pretending that we can get rid of them leaving a vacuum behind. The best that could happen is to swap an ‘ineffective’ (business) ritual with an effective one. But there will always be a trade off, not suppression as Seth wants. The annual sales conference can be suppressed (vey often for cost reasons) but will probably be substituted by ‘regional’ or ‘local’ ones, or a digital one or a series of internal meetings with lots of PowerPoint, or team building, or local diners, or something. Anything else that Seth quotes serves a ritual –purpose and before deciding their death we would be better off if we understood what exactly those rituals do for people and for the organisation.

We need to be a little bit careful with the homicide. Instead of Business Process Manual, read Anthropology... as the only way to understand ‘what’s really going on’. As a friend of mine used to say about problems - that we never solve problems, we just trade them off.- we never get rid of rituals, we substitute them. And don’t panic, if there is a vacuum or a shortage, a ‘new corporate initiative’ will be launched for the corporate tribes.

PS. I am disclosing the focus of my book planned by 2050 or so entitled ‘Homo Corporate’. Not a joke (the date is) – I own the web domain already.

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