Friday, July 27, 2012

How rituals impact Project Management

We have rituals for almost every occasion, even if we're so used to them that we don't notice them anymore. But the fact is that because of the rituals, things gain a whole new dimension and become important to us, rituals somehow make things special.
We can use this in Project Management to our benefit (and the benefit of the team) by noticing the rituals we use or even by creating our own.
This article will explore some of these aspects, in particular how to turn things special.


Starting from the beginning

A ritual is a set of actions performed mainly for their symbolic value and meaning within a community. It is usually associated with a religion, but that's not always the case. More generally, a ritual is anything you repeatedly do within a certain context (usually in response to something that happened or prior to something happening). For instance, the attribution of Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in the Olympics Games is a ritual. It's the way we do to honor those few who prove who are the best runners, weight lifters and so on. We put them on a podium and play their National Anthem. If you want to explore rituals some more, you can start by checking what's in Wikipedia.
But there are some Project Management rituals also. The way you start meetings can be a ritual in your organization or culture - maybe offering coffee or chit chating about the last ball game or asking for the other participants families. The way you dress, even if you don't have a dress code within your organization, can also be a ritual - do you feel obligated to wear a suite and tie when going to work?
In short, rituals are everywhere if you look for them. From the moment we wake up until we get to sleep (and probably including both waking up and going to sleep) there are rituals everywhere.
But rituals also bring to things a special meaning that's only there for a group of people. For instance, birthdays.

About birthdays

Have you ever noticed that your birthday is just another day for most people on this planet? Yet it is different to you, your family and your friends, isn't it? You throw a party, sing "Happy Birthday To You", eat cake and probably toast with Champagne. So this day is really different to you, you and the others participating have to plan it - you have a cake to buy or bake, and everyone has to get you some birthday present, right?
But to anyone who doesn't have the slightest idea of who you are, your birthday is just another day in the calendar for them. It's even deeper than this, it's not just the whole world that ignores your birthday. If you check all the laws of Physics there's nothing there that makes your birthday any special. So I'm sorry to break it to you, but even the Universe ignores your birthday. Still, it's special for you and a small group of people just because you believe it's different.
And it's not only birthdays...

Another example

Have you noticed that when enough people believe in a company their stock price rises even if the company itself is absolutely worthless? And the opposite is also true: when a group of people believe that a company just isn't worth it, they sell their stock and they can actually bring it down when in fact the company is a perfectly good, healthy and profitable one. It's really simple: one person sells low, someone else thinks that that person may know something she/he doesn't and so she/he sells to, just to be on the safe side. When this spreads enough you end up with everyone selling! And so a perfectly good company is shutdown.
So it's possible to turn something into reality just because you believe it. Thus, the importance of...

A positive attitude

Yes, it's contagious. And yes, if people believe enough and if they are somehow relevant enough, what could be initially wishful thinking turns into reality. For real.
For a long time I considered this positive attitude thing a bit of mumbo jumbo. Kind of a combination of wishful thinking and acting. But actually the previous example with stock proved me wrong: if some people that have enough influence in a particular context (like the stock exchange) believe something, they can make it happen. And just because they believe it.
Please don't read me wrong: a positive attitude is not enough to make things happen. Not even within a project. But it complements pretty well your skills as a Project Manager. You cannot manage projects based on a positive attitude but you can be a better Project Manager if you have one.
Just remember that when a group of people believe something - they may turn it into reality

Putting it into practice

One real life example was the way I implemented a ritual for starting the weekend. You can find all the details in the article "Laughter is the shortest distance between two people", but basically I started playing out loud the very worst music I could find every Friday at 6PM to indicate to the team it was time to leave and start the weekend. But your imagination and particular context are the limits for this.
For instance, celebrations could be done always in the same fashion like the same place, with the same words, using the same particular drink for a toast (which is a ritual in itself), using the same phrase for the toast or giving the same award to team members (a symbolic award, not real value awards). Or even by toasting with some drink everyone hates - these rituals don't have to be pleasant to mark the occasion as special.
The same goes for showing appreciation. Why not start by shouting out loud "This remarkable team has done it again" when showing appreciation to someone that did something remarkable? Or if you have a virtual team, use the same tag line for the email subject you're sending (or better yet do it over a video conference with the team).
As long as you repeat it on every single occasion, anything goes.

Conclusion

You can try to take advantage of this with your own team. All you have to do is to mark specific occasions as special ones. Pick which occasions are to be marked special ones and how to make them special. As long as you repeat it every single time something happens, it will probably work.
I provided some ideas here (and some that I have experienced) that will hopefully prompt you others. And that will serve you best just because your team context is different than mine. But do it, explore it, give it time and check for results!


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