Ceremony is central to the creation of civilization

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

Longtime friend of the blog Aretae has another book out. It’s called Ceremony: A Profound New Method for Achieving Successful and Sustainable Change:

Secreted away inside of weddings, graduations, religious services, and sporting events are powerful ceremonial techniques for dramatically increasing human performance — ways to increase productivity, strengthen relationships, and effectively manage change.

Ceremony is central to the creation of civilization. It is an intrinsic tool in religions, militaries, schools, and governments. Yet executives, entrepreneurs, and front-line managers cannot formally describe what it is, how it works, or how to leverage it in their organizations.

Surprisingly, ceremony as a conscious organizing strategy remains almost unknown in the business world. It has been ignored by an entire generation of business consultants. But there is hope. For two decades, the agile software development community has been quietly demonstrating the power of directed ceremony. In this book, we share insights gathered over the last two decades, first on agile software teams and later across entire organizations.

Does your staff come to work because they love what they do, or simply because they are paid? Ceremony builds a workplace people love.

Do people look forward to attending meetings, or do they sneak out of them at the first opportunity? Ceremony creates productive gatherings people want to attend.

Are you able to implement significant change rapidly, or do a whole generation of employees need to retire before real change succeeds? Ceremony enables quick, painless, and effective change.

Do you need to raise productivity, improve quality, and reduce costs, all at the same time? Ceremony is a strategy for doing all three. And it can be implemented in tiny, incremental, low-risk steps.

Ceremonial systems are humanity’s true heritage; rediscover their power.


  1. Kirk says:

    Interesting idea, but…

    This is a very, very tricky thing to manage, and the nuances are extraordinarily subtle.

    Sure, you can do a lot of good with a ceremony, but the moment you go over the edge from “valuable psychological tool” into “incredible pointless waste of time”, well… The thing becomes positively detrimental.

    A successful ceremony, where “successful” means “something actually meaningful and effective in psychological effect” has to be something that speaks to the participants, and needs to be carefully calibrated in terms of timing, elaboration, and meaning. Getting it right is not easy, and I’d almost suggest that because the tipping point between false pretense and actual meaning is so hard to hit right, you are almost better off not doing these things as an official “thing”. Sometimes, the informal one-off impromptu sort of thing is more meaningful and actually effective than the carefully-staged and elaborately planned major “event”.

    Sensitivity to this isn’t something a lot of our managers and leaders are good at. Pretense and falsity are easily identifiable from below, and show more about the leadership than they realize, particularly in the prioritization and resources assigned the ceremony.

    When you put more planning effort and resources into the annual West Point Founder’s Day events than you do the planning and preparation for the only major field exercise your brigade will be doing that year…? Yeah; fat lot of good that ceremony does for your soldier’s morale, and their perceptions of your leadership.

  2. Aretae says:


    Well said.

    That’s why our measuring sticks for ceremony are “do you walk away fulfilled” and “does the team still do the ceremony when the boss is out”.

    Events that are not repeated are rarely good ceremonies. What we’re seeking is a replacement of some portion of the giant mass of irredeemably useless make-work meetings by ceremonies that evolve into usefulness.

  3. Aretae says:



  4. Someone says:

    What if you are an INTJ personality type where things like ceremony and religion have no appeal?

  5. Kirk says:

    Having read the book, at this point… Let’s just say I’m not convinced by the case or ideas the authors lay out, or that we’re speaking the same language.

    Borrowing the terminology and surrounding semantic cargo that comes with using terms like “ritual” and “ceremony”, both of which denote a time-hallowed unchanging heritage, in order to conflate them with things like aircraft pre-flight checklists…? No. Just… No.

    There are key and fundamental differences here, and the liturgical freight implied here does not do the fundamental concepts they’re trying to get across much in the way of good. Ritual implies mindless, rote behavior done for it’s own sake; an aircraft checklist is something that is subject to change, and modification depending on the needs of the moment. On the surface, it may look like a ritual, but it is actually far from it–It is, in reality, a mnemonic aide-memoire consciously intended to aid the crew in performing a complex task. As such, it is the precise opposite of “ceremonial ritual”, because that terminology implies a mindless, slavish adherence to mere custom, as opposed to a thinking man’s approach to dealing with a complex environment.

    These things all make use of the same meta-features of human cognition, but I’m going to have to object to borrowing religious iconography and terminology to adapt these tools to everyday life. The words are important–You say “ritual” and “ceremony”, and you’re talking about things that are done in accordance with faith, religious belief, and time-honored customs–Most pointedly not things that are adaptable and ever-changing to meet the needs of the moment.

    I think this book has some good points, some good ideas, but the language the authors have chosen to couch it in will result in many rejecting the information and ideas therein. They’d have done better to use different terminology like “mnemonic aides-memoire” to get across the same ideas, because the religious are going to take offense at the hijacking of their customary terms for secular uses, and the non-religious are simply going to see those terms and reject the ideas because of the clothes they’re wearing.

    On top of that, it’s just… Wrong. You’re not doing a “pre-flight ritual”, which implies that somehow your mere going through the motions will somehow propitiate the “Gods of Flight”, you’re doing a damn checklist to ensure you’ve thought of everything and done everything you need to do. Calling it a “ritual” implies a mindless quality to it all, like that Afghan flight engineer who sacrificed a goat before one flight to ensure the plane would make the mission…

    Wrong terms. Please refer to Confucius, and his passages on the Rectification of Names, contemplate the meanings and usages of the language you’re using, and then try again.

  6. Graham says:


    Well said. I agree with you on the particular distinction between ritual/ceremony and solid operational procedures, and am appalled that anyone with intellectual ambitions would see them as the same kind of thing, let alone interchangeable.

    True ritual and ceremony have their purposes even in a secular environment, or at least not specifically religious, but even then they are not operational procedures and to serve their actual role they have to be tied to something real about the identity group. Not the made up BS that dominates corporate and government culture.

    On the wider implied issue, agree with Confucius that Rectification of Names is the heart of almost anything involving wisdom or intellect. If he were alive today, he would be in a state of un-Confucian blind rage 24/7.

  7. Kirk says:

    Graham, I think he’d be more amused than anything else, to observe how little we’ve learned in this arena since his day. It is indeed striking to recognize how persistent human folly is, and how little it changes down the years. About the only real difference between us and the Chinese of Confucius’s day is that where they entrusted individuals with responsibilities, we invest organizations with that trust. Results don’t seem have improved, in any measurable way.

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