Insight article

business transformation

Business transformation: routine to ritual

Engaging hearts and minds is one of the most vital elements in any business transformation. Here at The Storytellers, we often talk about the elephant (the emotional) and the rider (the rational) – if the elephant is not on board, then even the best laid plans of the rider are unlikely to happen. It’s a simple fable but it’s very true – unless people are both emotionally AND rationally engaged in the change that needs to happen, it’s very unlikely that any real improvements will be seen.

So when coming up with a campaign that engages large employee populations for our clients, we need to get to the emotional heart of what makes an organisation tick. But so often, finding out what the right emotional engagement for each organisation is can feel ephemeral, ethereal, out of reach – ‘fluffy’. As change experts, we have our own challenge then: how to take the essential goal of emotional engagement and make it more of a tangible, measurable process? 

One of the key questions that we ask our clients in this respect is as follows:

“What are your employees’ routines and rituals?”

At the ground level, this question reveals insights that tell us how things currently are, and therefore the space in which we can begin to introduce new elements that will drive the emotional engagement, and therefore, business transformation. Once identified, these existing routines and rituals become the framework for development, improvement, and measuring the success of the quest to create real emotional engagement.

But what are routines and rituals? Are they the same as each other? And why are they so significant when it comes to lasting change?

A routine is defined as “a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program.” In other words, it’s a process, a procedure, a drill. A series of steps that are followed with little question. One might say that they represent the objective of change – to make the conscious unconscious, so that the efforts and energies of employees can be turned to other immediate challenge.

On the other hand, a ritual has a far more elevated significance: “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” So although there is the same element of a prescribed sequence of actions, a ritual is by definition a heightened, conscious and mind-expanding experience. It represents the experience that delivers understanding, and connotes a much-more collective moment in a group than a mere routine.

Stories and storytelling are, of course, rooted in this concept of ritual – and in many ways, our responsibility to our clients is to help them deliver these ritual experiences, from which the collective emerges enlightened, engaged, and ready to face their duties differently. To put it simply: it’s the first step to making the extraordinary a matter of routine.

There are relatively few accurate synonyms for ‘ritual’. However, there is a phrase that captures perhaps the most critical element of what constitutes a ritual: liminal experience.

We have written previously on the importance of liminal experience, particularly in terms of live events, but liminal experience is a concept that very much applies to workplace rituals too. An anthropological term, ‘liminality’ comes from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”. It means the quality of ambiguity that occurs in the middle stage of rites, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. In other words, it is the moment in a ritual when change happens, the moment when the path towards making improvements part of the everyday begins to be glimpsed.

Broadly speaking, it’s this quality that we are looking to create – whether at a leadership event, or as a key driver of change in the workplace. Practically speaking, it’s a matter of taking the existing logistical framework that exists within a business and seeing where this can be disrupted, by making a ritual out of a routine. But what does this look like in practice, to create this liminal space in which individuals can find new meaning? What does it mean to give what was routine that special, ritual quality? Here are five key transitions to look for:

Tedious and meaningless to symbolic and meaningful

Operational communication is essential – it’s not a question of replacing this, or trying to make this something it’s not. It’s a question of introducing new elements that create that ‘round the campfire’ feeling – and there’s no better way of doing this than through stories. It’s stories that create that sense of being on the threshold of understanding what we do in a more sophisticated, complete, effective way than we did before.

Making this experience symbolic and meaningful must be with respect to the overarching journey that a business is on – it’s having this clearly defined bigger picture that creates the opportunity for anecdotes to become enduring symbols of the change that needs to happen. Sharing stories of progress on a regular basis as part of existing meetings is sure to shift the dial from tedium to meaning.

Externally motivated to Internally motivated

The key words here are proactive, discretional and voluntary. As a manager, call out instances where your employees have gone above and beyond – it’s these instances that crystallise an internal motivation to succeed on the journey. What is routine is what is expected – it’s the outlier examples that show a greater determination and alignment with the strategic journey. It’s so important to actively search for these, and visibly give credit where and when it is due.

The most useful asset here are the company purpose and values – tying real life examples back to these pillars of identity and ‘how we do things around here’ will bring to life exactly why certain examples deserve to be celebrated above others. Finally, be sure to proudly pass on these stories of outstanding motivation – they are the icons that build momentum behind a movement of change.

Work as a duty to work as a celebration

Rituals are inherently a form of celebration. Whether it’s solid, consistent performance or outliers of excellence, rituals elevate appreciation it to a superior level, making us feel proud of what we have collectively accomplished. 

It’s important to think creatively and proactively on this aspect – particularly where it comes to operational areas of a business. Finding the connection between what can be regarded as ‘day-to-day’ and the deeper purpose of why a business exists can be difficult, but it’s so important in terms of creating a complete purpose-led culture.

Consider whether you are hearing stories from ALL areas of your team. Not everyone can be the hero every time – but everyone needs to be the hero sometimes. Fostering an atmosphere of celebration by championing the people who consistently perform, as well as the outstanding moments of excellence, is the catalyst for future stories of success.

Little sense of belonging to increased sense of belonging

Talent retention, and avoiding the debilitating effects of attrition, are key, measurable drivers of many of our clients’ programs – and this is an area in which the need to create a feeling of ritual is particularly crucial.

Rituals are all about creating a circle – of trust, of belonging, of commitment. When we share experiences collectively, we feel that we belong to something bigger. We feel powerful, and capable of changing the world. 

Gathering around at least once a week in order to share stories of progress, challenges and success might seem a little strange at first – but over time, this becomes a ritual that cements a deeper sense of belonging, of a collective experience that we go through together. If you’re struggling to keep hold of your brightest talent, make sure that you are nurturing a sense of belonging. Getting together as a team more often, and doing this around a culture of story-sharing, is an excellent place to start.

Focus on completion of tasks to focus on performance of tasks

Perhaps more than any of the other dimensions, this one epitomises the shift from routine to ritual. Completing a task is a binary action – it’s either done, or it’s not. Introducing a performance-based approach elevates this to a richer, more nuanced learning experience. It’s not just about ticking off obligations – it’s a much more qualitative, transformative approach.

As customer experience begins to overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator, it’s so important to introduce a more user-focused approach to all areas of a business, not just the customer. Highlighting and drawing out the elements of a story that vividly bring to life the key qualities that we are searching ensures that this CX focus is consistent throughout an organisation.

Encourage your team to focus on the small steps that happen towards the completion of a task. Taking the time to tell the story of what is seemingly simple, boring and run-of-the-mill can reveal hidden emotional depths – and shift the culture to one that is proud of how we do things, not just what.

Taking your ordinary, well-worn business routines and turning them into something meaningful, memorable, and a key driver of change is to create the feeling of ritual. By doing this, it’s possible to make the extraordinary routine, and for businesses to take the first steps over the threshold to a brighter future.

Daniel Castro