Questioning Rituals: A Condom on a Broomstick and Reverse Onboarding

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” ― Bertrand Russell

There is a story about following other people’s rituals without questioning the value of those rituals. The story goes as follows. To educate natives on the use of condoms as contraception, missionaries applied the condoms to broom handles. When the missionaries were finished applying the condom they placed the condom-laden broom handle against the wall. The natives were then allowed to practice applying the condom to their broom handle and followed the lead of the instructor also placing the condom-laden broom handle against the wall.

Soon afterwards, the missionaries discovered that the natives were following their instructions a bit too precisely. When engaging in sexual relations, natives applied the condom to a broom handle and placed it against the wall!

The “condom on a broom” story may seem ridiculous to business executives, but we are guilty of following and acting without questioning in many ways. To bring this closer home, consider the following story.

The Zero Story

A consultant was visiting a small company to advise on improving general efficiency. The advisor was reviewing a certain daily report which dealt with productivity, absentee rates, machine failure and downtime.

The report was completed on a photocopied templated sheet that was several generations away from the original master-copy. As a result, the headings and descriptions were illegible. The photocopied forms were particularly fuzzy at the top-right corner, where a small box had a heading that was not clear at all. The advisor was interested to note that the figure ‘0’ had been written in every daily report for the past year.

On questioning the members of staff who completed the report, they told him that they always put a zero in that box, and when he asked them why they looked at each other blankly. “We are not sure about that,” they said, “I guess we’ve just always done it that way.” The consultant decided to visit the archives to see if he could find a clearer form, to discover what was originally being reported and if it actually held any significance. When he found the old reports, he saw that the zero return had continued uninterrupted for as far back as the records extended — at least the past thirty years — but none of the forms was any clearer than those presently in use.

He packed away the old papers and turned to leave the room, but something caught his eye. In another box, he noticed a folder, promisingly titled ‘master forms’. Sure enough inside it, he found the original daily report sheet master-copy, in pristine condition. In the top right corner was the mysterious box, with the heading clearly shown …… “Number of Air Raids Today” — ZERO

How many rituals do we follow in the workplace and in life without truly asking the question of why? Even more importantly, how many leaders are open to their people asking questions in the first place?

Questioning Rituals

The reason I share these stories is to highlight the fact that many of us adopt or adapt to existing infrastructures and ways of working within organisations and groups without ever questioning those ways of working. Innovation expert and previous guest on the innovation show, Greg Satell told us that business leaders must not simply follow other people’s rituals: “many modern executives believe by mimicking the tactics of other businesses they will somehow achieve the same results.” — Greg Satell Episode 118

Our latest guest on The Innovation Show is the author of Rebel Talent, Francesca Gino. Francesca emphasises the need for rebels in business and in life. Rebels are the changemakers, they are the “people who question their own assumptions and strongest beliefs, as well as the widely accepted norms around them, to identify more creative, effective ways of doing transcendent work. They are deviants, but in a positive and constructive way.” Unfortunately, Francesca goes on to say “Rebels are grudgingly tolerated, or, if they become too annoying, they are shown the door.

Many people justifiably fear the consequences if they were to question “the way things are done around here”. Some of us are not wired to question, but equally many of us lack the necessary psychological safety to question the modus operandi in the first place. It is the responsibility of leadership to create the conditions for people to question how a business operates. Many leaders proclaim that they engage their people, but the true proof comes from how leaders react when they or their business methods are questioned. One easy way to question your assumption is by employing a process that I call “Reverse Onboarding”.

Reverse Onboarding

Onboarding is also known as organisational socialisation. It is the process of informing a new hire of “the way we do things around here”. Onboarding integrates a new employee into an organisational its culture. The new hire gets immersed in the processes, procedures and behaviours of their new company. Incredibly, the new hires rarely get told why the company exists, but rather how and what the company produces.

Reverse Onboarding is a term that I would like to propose. To commit to a reverse onboarding session takes a restraint of ego, a large helping of humility and a very open mind. We must park our biases and prejudice that the new recruit does not know much about the business yet and is likely more junior to you as a leader.

Here is how “reverse onboarding” would run…

You schedule a reverse onboarding session with your new recruit. You tell them when they join that you will be doing this session with them after 12 weeks and you want them to report what they would do differently, how they might improve processes and what they see that you do not see or no longer see (a business Johari window of sorts). This information is vital, this is a report from the trenches. This information may be as valuable as (or more valuable than) information you would pay a top consulting firm to uncover.

What you do with the information next is a true measure of your leadership. If the recruit gives you an honest appraisal and you take action based on this intelligence you will have proven yourself as a leader to that recruit. You will also demonstrate to your people that you are flexible and open to change. If the leader is open to change it will impact the culture of the organisation. If the organisation is open to new questions, the organisation will find new answers.

Episode 172 of The Innovation Show is “Rebel Talent: Why it Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life with Francesca Gino.

Francesca Gino has been studying rebellion and conformity for more than fifteen years. She has discovered that when we mindlessly follow rules and norms rather than constructively rebelling against them, we become less happy and less successful in every area of our lives. While rebels may seem disruptive, they are ultimately good for business: their passion, drive, curiosity and creativity can raise organisations to a new level.

When we break the rules, we fix our lives.

We talk:

  • 5 elements of Rebel Talent
  • Hidden biases towards Rebellion
  • Conformity
  • Diversity
  • Stereotyping
  • GroupThink
  • Novelty
  • Following Rituals
  • Novelty in Business
  • Inviting Curiosity
  • Counterfactual Thinking
  • Authenticity

Have a listen:







More about Francesa here:

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