Ritual Cats

Stopping To Question Our Habits To Improve Our Outcomes

There is an old story about a monastery and a cat. When the spiritual teacher and his followers would gather in the evening for meditation, the cat that lived at the monastery would make too much noise for them to concentrate. So the teacher began to tie the cat up each evening before meditation. This allowed everyone to concentrate without distraction.

Before long, tying up the cat became part of the meditation ritual. Eventually the cat died, and so a new cat was found that they could tie up before evening meditation.

Of course, tying up a cat had nothing to do with meditation. It started out as a way to accomplish the meditation without distraction. But eventually became part of the meditation ritual, and then even became so engrained in the practice that they felt like they couldn’t meditate without tying up a cat.

Our Ritual Cats

It may seem like an absurd example, but how often do we fall into the same practices? I had a manager relate a similar story to me about meetings. At one organization, they were having some big problems, so a vice president organized a weekly meeting for updates until the teams involved could get the problems resolved.

Eventually, the meetings became engrained in everyone’s weekly schedule. The vice president who organized them stopped attending, but they had taken on a life of their own and continued unquestioned for months, with teams putting together updates and everyone discussing something(?) that had nothing to do with the original purpose. Until someone finally questioned whether they even needed to continue to meet.

Early in my career, I had many similar experiences. I was responsible for compiling a lot of data for our organization, and then sending it around to various groups. But I had no idea if it was useful or why we did it. It had been handed down from person to person until it came to me, just like a ritual cat.

So I stopped.

I figured that if it was important, someone would say something. But no one did. Ever. Apparently the data and reports weren’t important to the decisions, just like tying up a cat wasn’t important to meditation.

Every organization I’ve been in has their share of ritual cats. Some have a lot, others fewer. Some organizations are good about questioning their ritual cats, and others cherish them as if they were the most important part of the meditation, rather than the meditation itself.

An organization I used to work with was filled with ritual cats. And they cherished them. Pointing them out and questioning them was akin to blaspheming sacred symbols. This often manifested in how product teams were expected to work. They had tried-and-true project management practices that had worked for a long time, and why would they want to question them now? Executives have always been in control of projects, deciding to change things at a moment’s notice, so why wouldn’t we continue that?

This kind of attitude not only made for a difficult place to work, but it was impossible to develop good products and impossible to change anything. The ritual cats had become the focus. The way it had always been done was sacrosanct. Far more important than what we were trying to achieve. Needless to say it is far less successful.

Product Development Frameworks

In a similar vein, product development frameworks can often become ritual cats. Scrum, Kanban, XP, etc., are all useful framework for product development. But the rituals and processes should be there to serve us. Not the other way around.

I’ve never worked on a team that adheres perfectly to any of the frameworks above. You probably haven’t either. And that’s okay. I think there are great things in all of them. And I know there are strong voices calling for better use of all of them. But all teams are different. And companies are different. Taking the principles that work best and implementing those has always been far more important to me than ensuring that we have perfect daily stand-ups.

If you ever find yourself repeating the phrase “this is how it’s always been done” or “this is how we do it here”, that’s a good time to pause and ask yourself if you’ve got yourself a ritual cat. Good products don’t come from teams steeped in useless rituals. We use good frameworks and good processes, but we aren’t tied to them without a purpose. We use them for the outcomes they bring us to.

And we don’t allow ourselves to never question our rituals and our processes. We create them. They work for us. We should constantly be evaluating what we’ve put in place and questioning our own assumptions.

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