On rituals and rules

I was raised Catholic.

Back in the day, when we were all young, a new priest came to my town. It was his first post, and as it usually goes when someone does something for the first time, he decided to do things differently. Instead of an old lady playing the organ, he formed a rock band to play the same church songs.

Kids loved it. Old cried: “Blasphemy!”. Everyone in between cautiously evaluated the new developments trying to decide whether God made drums and electric guitar as everything else. Or was it a tax-free export from Hell itself?

There were many things we would do in the church that made little to no sense to me. Years of liberal education would later teach me that those were various symbols, rituals, and allegories. Back then, they were mostly just nonsense.

Every Sunday, there were particular moments where one would sit, stand up, kneel, then sit again. At a specific moment, one would do handshakes with everyone around them. I noticed that we were doing many things in threes (by the time I was eleven, I connected this with the whole “Holy Trinity” concept – I was slow…)

As I’ve entered those rebellious years and started to question everything, I went to the priest and voiced, what I believed was a unique and earth-shattering discovery. We seem to do a whole lot of religion on auto-pilot.

He said that customs (he did not call them rituals) were there to teach the young who don’t understand and remind the old who forgot. I didn’t make much out of it until years later, when I found myself managing a large software engineering organization.

One more paragraph on religion

Regardless of what one thinks of God, religion, or spirituality, it is impossible to ignore religion’s impact, longevity, and sheer magnitude. The three largest religions account for over 5 billion followers and have been around for thousands of years.

In our brave, new, knowledge economy – we have trouble getting everyone to use the same email signature or to always turn on the camera on Zoom. Yet, religion has somehow managed to describe the Holy Trinity concept simultaneously to an illiterate shepherd somewhere in the Balkan mountains and the likes of Heisenberg.

Process and rituals

Most of the processes we have these days in our organizations have their ceremonies. Agile software development, OKRs, sales all have rituals.

In agile software development (scrum variation), there is a stand-up meeting designed to keep discussions short. In sales, we have weekly pipeline review meetings designed to promote accountability.

In OKRs, we have many seemingly arbitrary rituals and rules, such as weekly check-in or quarterly OKR setting.

The purpose of all these rituals is the same as in religion – to promote and embrace an abstract concept, usually at scale. How would one go about embracing agility, accountability, or alignment?

Back to the priest

It is fair to modify or even discard a ritual – but only if we have fully internalized its intent. Ignoring a ritual because “it’s stupid” – is, well, stupid in its own right. Or arrogant. Or, perhaps both.

When the young priest from the beginning of this story changed the music from the tragically out-of-tune organ to a rock band, he had a clear idea. Times change, and so our rituals need to adapt. Music is inseparable from our humanity, from our thoughts and emotions – and plays a significant role in almost every religion that comes to mind. Just because the music played at the time was awful did not mean that we should get rid of music altogether.

We should find a better one.

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