Case study: NixonMcInnes transition ceremony
NixonMcInnes transition ceremony
This post was orginally posted 17/04/2015 on viktorlysell.com. It describes a ritual design project conducted by Viktor.
On February 2nd I led a ceremony to close a big chapter for the management consultancy NixonMcInnes as it transitioned to a radically new business model. The story serves as a case study for ritual work with organisations.
The context During the autumn of 2014 NixonMcInnes was in big change - moving from a digital transformation company with a traditional business model, to a purposeful business consultancy with a decentralised team.
The goal of the transition was to develop a structure that can meet the needs of everyone involved and deliver on the purpose of the organisation.
Transforming to this successfully, required fully letting go of its previous chapter as a digital media consultancy, and allowing things to be reborn.
The Rites Of Passage by Arnold Van Gennep. Introduction. Page 8.
In February 2015 the time had come to make the final step to cross the threshold. I took lead in designing and delivering the ceremony that would do it.
Tom Nixon is the founder of NixonMcInnes and he wanted to have all his energy available for the next version of the organisation, and for everyone involved to have the same for what comes next for them.
Showing gratitude and untying the relationship bonds was key. The danger is that people stay loyal to something that isn’t there anymore.
Tom Nixon and Max StJohn. NixonMcInnes office. August 2014.
The design When designing a ceremony I use a structure with three arches. The first one represents separation, the second one transition and the third one incorporation. Separation, transition and incorporation are the three steps in a rites of passage and the backbone to all my work.
Separation is about separating from the outside world (your non-ceremony identity). This is achieved by simple things as taking of your coat, and more demanding things like letting go of protective behaviors that might prevent the transition.
Transition are all the activities that will serve to process, develop, and change something. In this case the relationships and the nature of the organisation.
Incorporation or reincorporation is the final rite that brings the participants back into the “normal” world as a new being. It’s about manifesting the results from the transition.
To design this specific ceremony I researched the needs of the people and turned to Arnold Van Gennep. Van Gennep’s words in The Rites of Passage are 107 years old today.
One thing I have learned from Van Gennep’s research is that a balanced and powerful way to create a ceremony for separating from a group is to reverse the process of incorporation.
The Rites Of Passage. Page 35.
We did research on how the gradual incorporations to the community had happened. For some it started around 10 years ago and the significant moments were hard to remember, but it became possible to see some patterns. There were five key points that needed to be reversed.
Collectively looking forward and setting goals plays a big role in incorporating people to the community and initiating work. We reversed this by turning a big blackboard into a map on which the road represented NixonMcInnes’ timeline. In this way we looked backwards and acknowledged what had happened rather than forward with hopes. This also served to bring what we were letting go of to the surface. The collective and joyful drawing brought the group together.
When the map was done we had the opportunity to let it manifest a chapter that was coming to a close.
After some silent reflection we reversed the individual incorporation process of envisioning of our own future. Candles were lit and put on powerful moments that we want to keep with us. Stones were put on moments we wanted to let go of.
Timeline with candles and stones. NixonMcInnes office. February 2015. Photo: Nick Shepheard
We addressed the process of trying to get membership in the community. In the hiring process you share who you are and you get introduced to a picture of who the community wants you to be. This was reversed to being told by everyone what they appreciate about you.
Being handed a key is a loaded moment. It represents membership and responsibility. This was reversed at the end of the ceremony by everyone handing their keys to Tom. At the dinner after the ceremony Tom handed the keys back to everyone with the new meaning of being welcome as a guest.
Arriving one by one to the organisation through the years was reversed to leaving the ceremony one by one. There was a staircase leading from the office to the street which everyone walked down alone. The purpose here was to fully manifest the newness and become ready to incorporate with society outside the ceremonial space. Incorporation would happen on reaching the street.
Together with some more process oriented interactions, these steps fit the overarching rites of passage structure.
Matt Matheson receiving appreciation. NixonMcInnes office. February 2015. Photo: Nick Shepheard
“The ceremony played an enormous part for me as the founder of the organisation. It allowed me to emotionally move on from this phase of the company. I felt a huge sense of headspace being freed up to allow the next phase of the company to fully emerge. By untying the bonds of the community the possibility to reform the relationship with those people in a way that meets mutual needs is now there.” - Tom Nixon
“It was beautifully done, simple, heartwarming and meaningful.” - Louise Ash
“I remembered the happy, fun, rewarding stuff. I felt reconnected to people. I felt warmer about my experiences in the business and empathy for others.” - Belinda Gannaway
“What new state of being did the ceremony help you establish?”
“Me outside of NixonMcInnes, me in a story of my own” - Jenni Lloyd
“By recognizing what had been, and marking its end” - Jenni Lloyd
“What transition did the ceremony help you with?” “Starting new projects, building new relationships… I could feel that the previous initiative had really closed, and there was nothing left for me to do but move on.” - Max StJohn “What did the ceremony help you let go of?” “Any difficult feelings about relationships with my colleagues, left over from tension or conflict in the past.” - Max StJohn “How?” “By giving time and space to hear genuine appreciation of how I had helped them, and what they’d gained from that help, I could see any negative stories as just that - stories - and they disappeared.” - Max StJohn
The team. NixonMcInnes office. February 2015.
If you give care and thought to the process you don’t need much more. Make sure you think about details! Having a pillow on the “chair of appreciation” made the sensation of sitting on it different from the rest, and with its altar-style decoration it allowed for a certain openness.
People like each other much more than their everyday interaction gives away. The peer-to-peer feedback was deeply profound.
Profound stuff takes time! We overrun the schedule so much we had to take down the clock from the wall and postpone our dinner reservation three times. There is no stopping appreciation. Keep what is after the ceremony as flexible as possible.
Timing and clarity is essential. The first attempt at this ceremony was at the same day as the christmas party. Don’t even try to create a reflective space when people want a party.
Make the invitation very clear and don’t be afraid to suggest some prep work.
People want space to manifest change. Ritual design is a perfect vehicle for this as it respects letting go, transition and manifestation of newness.