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27 Apr

Some hazy musings on organizational rituals

A friend who works as a Project Manager told me about a crucial but often overlooked exercise businesses benefit from undertaking.

In 2017, their CEO had the foresight to plan effectively for the future. Here’s how he went about it.

In the first quarter of FY2017, he invited managers from all departments to vent out all the problems they were encountering in their vertical.

In the first session, they merely laid out everyone’s pain points.

The venting was structured using a 2x2 matrix.

Based on the tasks she listed, each manager had to mark it on a 2x2 matrix based on the probability of occurrence against the impact it could have. This priority list was further evaluated by employees from CEO’s office to decide company-wise priority tasks.

They thought the topmost task was mitigating risk from the 900-employee-big factory staff unionizing.

They approached the task by having a plan of action at three levels — short-term tasks, mid-term plans, and long-term strategy.

In the short term, the business decided to stop hiring factory employees for the time being. They changed their hiring strategy by making use of a government scheme.

You see, In 2017, the Karnataka government laid out the NEEM scheme through which diploma graduates from technical and non-technical backgrounds were eligible to apply for jobs. The minimum age requirement for the students to be eligible for the scheme was 16 years. And through the scheme, the individual was guaranteed between three months to three years of probationary paid work, which would double up as industry training for them.  

They implemented this strategy in the short term because being a government scheme, they feared it could be declared null and void all of a sudden.

Simultaneously, they started identifying transferable skills from the factory staff and converted part of the blue-collar staff into white-collar employees. This staff would be responsible for efficiency management at the factory level.

Introducing this change created an incentive among the factory employees against unionizing.

While the short and mid-term strategies were implemented by the team, they realized that the 900-employee team would expand in the years to come with the increased scale of operations. They had to look to operate from a region where the labour problem wouldn’t arise.

To efficiently carry out all the tasks, they also had three separate teams look at each level of risk mitigation.

As they had anticipated, the NEEM scheme, which provided a buffer, was discontinued by the government in 2019.

But by then, the mid-term strategy, which involved training the existing staff on transferrable skills, kicked in.

The benefits of easily hiring entry-level staff and training the older staff gave the business time to execute its long-term plan effectively.

If you’ve read till here, you must be wondering if the anecdote sounds too ideal, as if it's out of a management textbook. I don’t blame you.

Here’s the thing.

My friend highlighted how risk management is one of the most overlooked aspects of any business. I couldn’t argue against it.

I experience this quite regularly.

The moment you’re on track with a certain task, some other task will start glitching. The first few years of starting up do feel like they amount to nothing of substance.

But I think that instead of constantly being in troubleshooting mode, you could have simple protocols or rituals in place that serve as a preliminary mechanism for surfacing issues quickly.

Firstly, such a ritual brings all asynchronous teams together. The mere awareness of each team’s priority and pain points is a decent indicator of what parts of the machine might need oiling and gives a hint as to which teams can collaborate to fix the problem.

The probability of occurrence and impact 2x2 helps the top management get a clearer view of how engrossed a manager is and creates an account of what organizational priorities can be looked at.

Further evaluating it from a view to charting out the next steps or strategy preserves momentum. It creates fervour within the team.

I speak of momentum and fervour because I have observed that troubleshooting organizational inefficiencies is usually an afterthought in most businesses. Often, a lot of talk about making others feel heard and making other teams aware of how other teams operate remains limited to talk.

Translating that awareness into action isn’t prompt enough. In fact, this is one shortcoming I pointed out to a junior colleague when he asked me what the Stoa team could do better. I pointed out that as we grow, we might run the risk of being bureaucratic.

Bureaucracy of the good kind makes sense in practice when the problems are of a certain scale and some friction is useful in throttling mindless interventions and breaking down Chesterton's Fences. But at startups, I feel we don’t need bureaucratic structure — not yet.

Most strategy fails to work in practice and stays limited to strategy because it isn't protocolized or ritualized sufficiently within the organization. The efficiency that comes from having structured protocols that help execute with clarity and intent is, frankly speaking, underrated.

Ritualizing certain approaches and protocols for people to follow religiously, without caveats, can do wonders for solving problems that need to collectively harness the energies of everyone in the organization in order to be successful.

For an outsider without context, the ritual may seem archaic, unnecessary, or too simple, but for an insider, rituals can create a baseline of response mechanisms.  When all else fails, such rituals can anchor people in the business.

Think of a venting ritual as the cursory confession cushion of a business. The ritual is useful to coax out inefficiencies and budding problems. Once out in the open, you can employ relevant strategies to prioritize solving these problems and mitigate the risks you anticipate.

But arriving at that ritual and, making sure it assumes the status of a ritual within the org needs lots of repetition — both in word and deed. I will do a separate issue discussing the intricacies of this in the near future. Having said that, I have to accept that I am yet to crystallize Stoa’s troubleshooting rituals. But in case you have a go-to approach for surfacing issues at work, do write back to me. I would like to take notes!

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