Friday, January 21, 2011

The Purpose of Ritual

@ColinBeveridge asks about the purpose of the introduction ritual at the start of many meetings, and suggests that Going Around The Table Is A Waste Of Time.

"So-called ‘face time’ is increasingly precious to all of us, which makes me wonder why we routinely waste so much time, at the beginning of meetings, by ‘going round the table’ to introduce ourselves to each other."

I was at a meeting this week where the introductions lasted almost until lunchtime, and one of the attendees had to leave before the introductions had finished. But in terms of the purpose of that particular meeting, long introductions seemed both necessary and useful.

In other meetings, especially where most of the people already know each other, the introductions are often skimped or omitted altogether. A bit of perfunctory small-talk and then down to business. From an ultra-rationalist perspective, this style might seem more efficient.

But what if systematically encouraging all the participants to exercise their voice-box and social manners before tackling the main business of the meeting resulted in a more effective discussion, to which the quieter and more thoughtful participants made a more significant contribution? Would Colin still think that the ritual was a waste of time?

Watching the Australian Open on the television this week, it occurred to me that the introductions at the start of many business meetings served a similar purpose to the warm-up before a tennis match - helping the players to shake off the stress of waiting for the match to start, and also get used to the conditions of the court, before starting to compete in earnest.

If going around the table is really a waste of time, as Colin thinks, why do so many meetings do this? There must be some positive social effect that explains why people maintain this ritual. POSIWID - the purpose of a system is what it does.

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