There’s an old Zen koan, or traditional story, about the fallacy of rituals that have lost their relevance:
During every evening meditation, the Zen master’s cat made so much noise with his plaintive meows that it drove both the master and his students to distraction.
So the master ordered that his cat be fed freshly caught fish during evening meditation. The cat’s constant meowing ceased and the fresh fish dinner ritual continued, even after the elderly master died. When the cat also died, another cat was brought to the monastery and fed fish during evening meditation.
Many years passed, and devotees of the Zen master wrote scholarly analyses of the religious significance of feeding a cat freshly caught fish during meditation practice.
What rituals do you and your organization practice because they mattered once but no longer do? Here are some I’ve run into:
- Ground rules for effective meetings. I see them posted on the walls, left over from a meaningful conversation eight years ago and drafted by a group of people long since gone on to other roles and other organizations. I once saw a posted ground rule that read, “Don’t forget to S.P.R.O.C.K.E.T.” When I asked what it meant, not a single person had any idea. Ground rules themselves may not be a bad idea (though I’m not always a fan), but they are rarely useful for posterity because teams change and grow.
- The CFO who chaired meetings in the absence of the CEO. I watched the CFO in action several times and his style was heavy-handed with his female colleagues and very short on collaboration in a group that had described itself as “highly collaborative.” When I asked the CEO why he had his CFO chair in his absence, he replied that it was just a tradition. It turned out that the CEO, himself an effective meeting chair, had once been CFO in a long-ago organization and had been asked to chair in his own CEO’s absence. By making a ritual out a practice, this CEO had helped create a difficult dynamic in his senior team.
- A mediator who expected all participants in her mediation to pass a feather to serve as a talking stick. Without the feather in hand, a participant could not speak. The problem was that the mediation involved a restaurant owner, city administrators, and a group of Harley riders. The feather hadn’t, um, gone over well. This mediator had been taught by someone with an unusual mediation rule and different clientele, and then she had adopted the ritual for her own without sufficient (any?) thought. Not only did the case not resolve, but the mediator found herself in conflict with her own clients, some of whom marched out in protest over the feather rule.
Don’t let the monastery cat’s meowing spawn a ritual that was never intended to be one.