Harnessing the Power of Ritual for Business Innovation

How often do you engage in rituals? Probably more often than you think. From daily routines like the first cup of coffee in the morning or the story you read your child at bedtime to the most culturally significant celebrations, including weddings and bar mitzvahs, rituals are almost certainly a part of your personal life. But are they a part of your professional life? If not, you are missing out on an extremely powerful management tool, especially if what you are seeking from your team is creative innovation and out of the box thinking in the context of a rapidly evolving marketplace.

Research done by neuroscientists shows that 80% of our brain’s grey matter is dedicated to non-conscious thought and that imaginative play is one of the most direct means of activating our creativity and problem-solving abilities. Rituals, which engage the unconscious part of us, have the power to shape and channel the intangible dynamics and energies within and between people. Rituals therefore create possibilities for extraordinary outcomes in even the most challenging circumstances because they tap into the greater part of our wisdom and knowledge. A recent study done by medical researchers at the Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center on the placebo effect shows us just how powerful rituals can be.

Typically placebos are used in medical research as a control mechanism. A portion of study subjects will be given a drug that is expected to have some therapeutic value, and a portion of study subjects will be given a placebo, which has no known therapeutic value. Also, in typical studies, none of the study subjects are told whether they are receiving the real medicine or the placebo – indeed researchers go to great lengths to protect the study subjects from knowing whether they are receiving the placebo or the drug. For many years researchers have been aware of the “placebo effect”, the phenomenon that a portion of the study subjects given the placebo will experience relief from some of their symptoms. Since typical research projects involve the researchers not disclosing to the study subjects whether they are receiving a placebo or an actual drug, it has been posited that the study subjects who experience relief through the placebo have been influenced by the thought that the placebo might in fact be a real drug. In short, researchers have thought that it is simply the belief that the drug is real that heals the study subjects.

In the recent Harvard / Beth Israel study, the subjects all suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), a chronic functional gastrointestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain and discomfort for which “few therapies have been shown to be effective and safe,” and, “previous research has demonstrated that placebo responses in IBS are substantial and clinically significant.”

What the Harvard and Beth Israel researchers wanted to find out was whether the placebo effect would be neutralized or diminished if the IBS patients were made aware that they were being given a placebo. In this study half of the subjects were given nothing and half of them were given a sugar pill. What they found was startling: 59% of the patients treated with the placebo in full awareness that they were in fact taking a placebo, experienced relief from their symptoms as versus 35% of those who were not given a placebo. Further, the relief they experienced was “to a degree roughly equivalent to the effects of the most powerful IBS medications.” The study notes that while scientists aren’t sure what to make of the findings, they suspect that simply the ritual of taking a pill is what made the study subjects experience relief.

Rituals are powerful. They send a signal to our brain that something of note is happening. They help us harness energy, stabilize our minds, and have faith in the future. In doing so they enable us to move past inertia and creatively reach beyond the bounds of logic. In short, they give us a tangible means through which we can access and manage that which is intangible.

So, how can you bring the practice and power of rituals to your aid in the workplace as you seek to harness and direct the energy of your employees toward the goals of innovation and growth?

Mercedes Erra, the founder and chairwoman of BETC, France’s leading advertising agency, offers one great example that can be adapted to many types of businesses, where creativity and agility, innovation and change are of importance to the success of the company. At BETC whenever a brief on a new client or project is brought in by an account executive, it is treated as a pivotal moment in the life of the agency. The brief, which is the first step in the development of a new campaign, becomes a celebratory moment. It is the trigger for a professional ritual in which importance and meaning are conveyed. Food and drinks are brought into a special room, and all of the people who will be working on the campaign gather together to talk about the future of the project. It is fun and playful and serious work all at the same time. Key elements of the brief are clarified, including the strategic context of the project. There is discussion about the agency’s or individual team members’ relationships with the client, and exploration of any convictions or doubts anyone has about the client, their company, the brand, or the communications plan that they want to launch. The physical meeting and the celebratory atmosphere may take more time up front – may possibly even seem inefficient if you think about it in a linear way – but what the team achieves could not be achieved through an exchange of emails or a memorandum because those means of communication do not have the same impact, and do not create the same possibilities for dynamic interaction. Rituals are powerful because they help us go beyond what’s tangible and conscious. They reach deep into our unconscious, engage our instincts, and convey meaning. They enable us to connect to each other in a uniquely powerful way.

What Mercedes understands at a deep level is that she’s in a business where creative talent and strategic thinking are everything, and she knows that she needs to mobilize and encourage both all the time. These moments of celebratory ritual help her to determine the best way to manage every project, because she gets to see the energetic dynamic of her team in a very specific context. The rituals are also her way of reenergizing her teams and compensating for the unavoidably high-pressure work environment of the advertising world. Mercedes says that about once a year she reminds everyone at her agency about the crucial importance of brief rituals in their ability to succeed; without this constant attention to rituals she knows that the pressure of deadlines and demands of clients simply push the more subtle – yet far more powerful – management of the invisible aspects of advertising business to the side.
Any time we need to make creative choices in a complex context, entrepreneurial decisions in a fast evolving environment, or when we need to mobilize more of our employees’ energy to reinvent a business model, rituals can help us create synergies between the tangible and intangible aspects of the world. Balancing the need for logic and reason with that of instinct and play in today’s increasingly competitive global marketplace is a subject that I explore in great depth in my upcoming book, The Intuitive Compass.

Note: Information about the IBS study was taken from a paper entitled “Placebos without Deception: A Randomized Controlled Trial in Irritable Bowel Syndrome” by Ted J. Kaptchuk et al.

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