For thousands of years, we have marked significant moments with ceremony. From birth to death, from college graduation to cutting the ribbon at the opening of a new building. Each of these moments represents a time of substantial, lasting change to people’s lives, which we feel the need to ritualize.
In my last blog, I highlighted the importance of helping people break attachments to the past to ensure successful, lasting change. I also introduced two techniques for helping people let go of old habits. A third technique is ceremony.
Ceremony has a psychological effect on us. It has the form of an accepted and (largely) traditional ritual. It is a held in public and declares to all those present, “This an important moment, a moment of change”. A wedding, for instance, says to family and friends in attendance that their relationship to the married couple has been forever altered. The ritualized and public nature of the service helps to seal this in people’s minds and helps them to move forward.
So how does ceremony assist us when it comes to organizational change?
In his 2010 TV series, “Jamie’s American Food Revolution”, Jamie Oliver tackled the poor eating habits of the children of Huntington, West Virginia – dubbed ‘America’s unhealthiest city’. During the series, he meets the Edwards family, who cook most of what they eat in a deep fat fryer. As part of the process of helping them, he gathers the family in their back yard, where he ceremonially buries their deep fat fryer. He calls on Mrs Edwards to say a prayer over the buried fryer in which she declares their intention to give up their unhealthy diet. It is a moving moment that signals change to the whole family https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLgmk323H6k .
In a similar vein, when Leeds Grammar School (for boys) and Leeds Girls High school merged in 2007 they decided to take memorabilia from each school and bury it in a time capsule for 100 years. In this way, they paid homage to their illustrious histories (going back hundreds of years), helping them to consign it respectfully to the past, and enabling them to better focus their attention and energy on building a great future together http://welcomewords.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/TWO-HERITAGES.pdf
My final example is the speech given by Nick Capparelli on July 1, 1968 to mark the merging of the Omaha University with Nebraska University. It starts with the words, “We commemorate today a happy event. The University of Omaha has not ended its existence except in a bare legal sense. We mark only the beginning of a new phase in its continuing life…” He calls on people to see this moment of change as a milestone in its history, and a launch pad for even greater achievement in the future . To hear the full speech, click here https://mediahub.unl.edu/media/9468 .
So, next time you make a change at work, use ceremony to help make it stick: hold a party, get everyone together to throw out old procedure manuals, make a speech to bid farewell to an old office building or whatever else you can think of to signal respect for the past, and to mark the moment when you all step into a new world together.