- Leandro Herrero - https://leandroherrero.com -

Why getting rid of inefficient processes in the organization is so hard. Anthropology explains it.

I had a discussion with a client recently, about the resistance to get rid of complicated processes that almost everybody agrees are, yes, too complicated, too long and even unnecessary, at least in their present forms.

The client had brought in expert management consultants to ‘inject simplicity’. Over a few weeks, they had dissected every single overweight and overgrown key process and come up with recommendations to streamline, change and even kill.

Months after that forensic expedition, a fraction of those recommendations had been implemented, and people continued to complain about the ‘growing complexity of their processes’. How come?

You can blame leadership, or a culture of ‘poor follow up’ or any other systemic ill. Not obvious, by the way, in that particular client. But chances are the reasons are more primal and only understood from an anthropological perspective.

Most inefficient processes that stay in place in defiance of logic, and that seem to be resistant to modification, may be so stable because they are very effective. And something else, their efficiency as processes may be low and frustrating, but they may be very effective as rituals.

The consultants brought in were not anthropologists, so they did not see the same world as anthropologists do. They were (very good) experts in ‘plumbing efficiency’ and discovered that the decision making pipes of the company had many of those pipes, many turns, many twists, many loops and many itineraries. They saw the process, not the ritual.

An organizational ritual provides the glue for people. Preparing a budget to present to somebody who needs the presentation to present to somebody higher, who will sanction the budget via that presentation, is a ritual. Dozens and dozens of people are involved, lots of meetings to discuss, don’t forget the rehearsals and ‘run throughs’. The involvement, the discussions, the meetings, the rehearsals, the visual representation into a corporate formatted PowerPoint, are at least as important as the content.

In ritual terms, that needs time and space. In process-efficiency terms, you could cut the whole thing easily by 50%. But if you did, you would eliminate part of the glue: people defending positions, playing their personal power-capital, testing each other, protecting the turf, enjoying deep and rational discussions (‘hard work’), establishing alliances, protecting against the enemy, performing, including some, excluding others, etc. And suppressing these would be a big problem in the absence of another platform in which all those games of power and inclusiveness could take place. Eliminating the campfire without an alternative does not sound a good idea.

Part of a ritual is its intrinsic perseverance. ‘The presentation’ (the nomadic expedition)  comes back via those twisted and convoluted pipes that the simplicity consultants hated, only to say that all is very well, good job, could you please cut the budget by 10%? That triggers ritual part 2 called ‘we need to find 5 million’. And this is a ritual as important as the previous one, now even more challenging. In fact, tribe members thrive in these alpha male and alpha female exercises where everybody talks about the difficulty of the task and the ‘hard reality of these times of budget constrains’. (I have never seen better employee engagement than a bunch of executives finding cuts in budgets).

A simple recollection of the previous 5 years of budget processes (rituals) would have shown in less than 5 minutes that, systematically, every year, the budget ‘presentation’ travels back down the pipes with a request of at least a 10% cut. I could hear the simplicity-efficient consultants shouting, for goodness sake, present three budgets: inflated by 10%, as is, and minus 10%! Wow! That would be very efficient as a process. But not as effective as a ritual.

You can’t kill a ritual easily. But you can kill a process. The question is, which of the two do you see?

If you see high ritualisation, you have to see what that ritual is effective for, and somehow cater for those needs.

In my personal experience, when I bring the topic to a table of frustrated team members, project managers and receiving leaders, and disclose the differences between (and the coexistence of) an utterly inefficient process and an incredibly robust effective ritual, eyes are often opened and we can tackle both in equal terms. Formidable conversations appear over that new campfire. Then, we improve the process big time, and we start a conversation about culture. All in one.


For an example of the power of Viral Change and the work we do at The Chalfont Project [1] read about GSK Vaccines’ culture transformation: championing catalytic change. [2] (article written by: Hilton Barbour).