Symbols and Rituals

There are strategy implications to symbols. Used as signs, acts, or objects, they can signify special meanings, as well as convey messages that “make the enemy see my strengths as weaknesses and my weaknesses as strengths.” In turn, they shape the plans within your organization, just as they communicate signals to those rivals observing from the outside.

Therefore, if an organization is to remain a unique entity, it can be represented symbolically through a dress code, an oath, a song, or the manner of addressing people with certain terms or titles.

It carries further to the choice of words that represent boldness or weakness of a business strategy, as well as to the expected behavior when entering or defending a market. What follows, therefore, is that an employee’s allegiance to the organization is expressed through symbolism.

Connected to symbols are rituals. These consist of traditional or contrived ceremonies (as in Schwab’s crossing the chasm) in which some physical act or expressive behavior dominates over otherwise technical or rational actions.

People tend to think of organizations as physical units and part of the material world. Yet, the reality is that rituals represent the means by which people are linked to organizations to give it a human dimension and thereby a differentiated quality.

Because rituals assume various forms, it would be highly useful to investigate the meanings, types, and structures of the symbols used in your company’s rituals. Then stay alert to your employees’ beliefs in the effectiveness of the rituals. Where accepted and meaningful, it gives employees confidence, dispels their anxieties, and disciplines their work groups.

In some situations, rituals may do nothing more than tighten the relationships between one business unit and another. Or they may be used to bring together diverse units toward a unified corporate goal. Again, in the Schwab case it was expressed by crossing the chasm.

You will also find cultural symbols and rituals most useful when viewed as a form of communication through the spoken word. Words define and interpret what is really going on in the company. Hence, they embody each person’s behavior through the social networks that exist among the various individuals who are interacting. The following examples illustrate the various points associated with symbols and rituals and their resulting impact on initiating cultural change within the organization.

GE Aircraft Engineers Division at one point shifted its engineers into a renovated warehouse that had the look and feel of a high-energy startup. The aim was to redefine an existing culture from a slow-moving, tradition-based establishment to one that emphasized creativity and ingenuity. The symbolism associated with the physical layout formed the basis for change.

Heineken Brewery initiated a cultural change at the tradition-bound 400-year-old beer maker. The aim was to stir employees out of their complacency and push Heineken to break away from its play-it-safe corporate culture. Traditional corporate symbols and rituals were shaken by the bold strategy of making a dozen acquisitions, moving aggressively into seven countries in eastern Europe, capturing the sought-after twenty-something segment, and introducing daring new packaging.

The following lessons surface from the above examples: First, it is in your best interest to pay close attention to your firm’s value systems, your employees’ deep-rooted beliefs, traditions, and symbols when determining your organization’s future direction. Second, if you have bottom-line responsibilities, your everyday job will be more productive if you match your business plans for a market segment, product line, or sales territory with the unique culture of your business unit. Third, employees responsible for implementing strategies must be oriented toward culturally diverse markets, remain flexible, and be adaptable to change. They must tune in to the nuances of the markets and be receptive to their unique value systems, beliefs, and forms of behavior.

He whose ranks are united in purpose will be victorious. The appropriate season is not as important as ... harmonious human relations.

Sun Tzu

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