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Change hack 7: Moving through transition with ritual and ceremony

Years before I was a change consultant, I worked at an organisation that went from being run by a team of only four trustees to a publicly listed company. One thing I remember from that significant transformation was the removal of the trustees’ portraits from our meeting rooms to signal a new era in the company’s history. This act of taking away the artefacts of the ‘old culture’ to make way for the new, resonated with me.

And then I remembered John Kotter’s final step in his famous 8-step model. A critical component required to anchor the change into the corporate culture is to send the message that the old ways are no longer relevant, acknowledged or rewarded. It helped me appreciate the importance of ritual, symbolism, celebration and ceremony in a business context. Yet, it’s underdone when we deliver organisational change.

In our personal lives, we celebrate our birthdays with those close to us. We acknowledge completion of study with a graduation. An arrival of a new baby is often welcomed with a ceremony. And in many cultures, the transition from childhood to adulthood is recognised as a ‘coming of age’. Remember the symbolic key that was associated with the 21st birthday? Even in secular societies, we haven’t lost the art of participating in rituals and ceremony to recognise personal milestones.

Within our hardwired need for social connection lies an innate desire for ritual and ceremony. And there’s an opportunity to tap into this in the workplace. We spend so much time with our colleagues, they are one of our important ‘tribes’. As a powerful way to help people move through transition, accept new beginnings and leave the old ways behind, it’s something change consultants need to consider in their approach.

New beginnings

A ritual to kick off a project helps teams come together and understand their common purpose, reminding us we’re not alone on this quest and can count on each other.

A program director told me her story about how she kicked off a large project. She invited her project team members and steering committee members to a ‘commitment ceremony’ where they created hand prints, with paint, on a large paper wall to symbolise their membership and commitment to the project vision and each other. For the duration of the project, this served as a visual reminder for all to see.

On my very first project as a change consultant, my project manager asked me for creative kick-off ideas. Our vendors were Swedish, so many of our team members were a long way from their homeland. I developed a ‘project survival kit’ for each new project member, which included a jar of our iconic Aussie spread, Vegemite to also welcome our offshore colleagues to our country. The kit served as an ‘initiation’, as each new team member who joined our project received the kit. Through this artefact, we conveyed the message that like most projects, there were some tough times ahead, but we could meet our challenges with cohesion and sometimes, humour.

Regular ritual for ongoing cohesion

Daily stand up meetings and end-of-iteration retrospectives all form part of regular rituals. As social beings, we like rituals to endorse our sense of belonging and provide anchors of certainty. I haven’t forgotten the short weekly trivia quiz our project manager scheduled, on an intense project a few years ago, that provided light relief and bonding for our team every Friday over muffins and coffee.

Often, you only begin to miss your old rituals when you leave to work elsewhere and adopt new practices.

Don’t forget to celebrate the small wins!

In the movie, The Intern, ringing the bell loudly and visibly signalled an accomplishment. This reminds us to catch people doing it right to reinforce the behaviours we want to embed, during the transition and after implementation. Just like the movie, empower all employees to publicly cheer others on with a bell or recognition wall to acknowledge good performance. What’s not to like about that? It also plays to the ‘progress principle’ where achievement of small things keep us motivated and engaged.

Endings and closure

I recently heard a great example of a transition ritual on Jen Frahm’s short podcast with Bronte Jackson, on Conversations of Change. To introduce a new strategy and ways of working in the government sector, Bronte set up a ‘transition tunnel’ to farewell the old. The ritual involved acknowledging past achievements, and then walking into the tunnel with a balloon that represented the past. During the walk-through, the participants were asked to let go of, or destroy their balloon. As they came through the tunnel, they received a new balloon with the new mantra. This sent the clear message - ‘we are doing things differently around here now’.

What do our people need to let go of, to move to the new way? If we go back to my earlier example of removing artefacts of an old culture, perhaps it’s the burning or disposal of old manuals or performance scorecards? Post photos of your transition and closure ceremonies on your Enterprise Social Network and visual management board to remind and reinforce your change message.

In the natural world, we see the cycles of new beginnings, endings and rebirth, such as with the turning of the seasons, and moon cycles. Change in our professional and personal lives follows the same cycles

Through human history, social groups have understood this and worked through the process of transition and acceptance with their rituals. They provide a sense of tribal belonging that resonates with our hardwired need to connect with others and share common experiences. Like stories, they are remembered, they resonate and are often retold. Ritual and ceremony helps us let go of old ways and embrace the new, in a way that engages our hearts and minds.

What are the rituals and ceremonies you use to acknowledge transition and change? I’d love to hear what’s going on in your organisations.

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