Totems, Taboos and Repetitive Interactions

By Steve Zuieback · Posted Thursday, April 25, 2013

Did you ever wonder about how to build powerful agreements – here is the way.

Too often teams and organizations make their high-level values into their agreements about how they do business. They talk about the importance of such things as equity, transparency, empowerment and ownership, but never translate these values into operational terms.

Totems, Taboos and Repetitive Interactions – TRRI

TTRI is a process that was developed by Tim Dalmau and Richard Knowles and is the perfect process for making this translation from values into operational principles or agreements. As the video explains, there are 3 steps involved in the process. The first step involves asking a team about the specific behaviors that they would repetitively exhibit that would be evidence of living the value (equity, transparency, etc.).

The second step is a short conversation around the behaviors that people could exhibit, or that people currently exhibit, that would violate the value. These are called Taboos. If your value was transparency, a taboo could be making major direction changes without discussing the issues with major stakeholders. As soon as people see that you value transparency only when it is convenient, you lose trust and credibility.

The third step focuses on the Totems – those quantifiable results that you expect would result from living the agreed upon Repetitive Interactions and eliminating the Taboo behaviors. With a value of transparency, these Totems might include improvement of quality, customer service responsiveness, improve employee morale, increase employee retention, etc.

 2 Most Common Process Challenges

Invariably two challenges occur when using the process. The first is that people are not specific in identifying the Repetitive Interactions. For transparency, they might say that a Repetitive Interaction is to engage stakeholders in key decisions. This is actually another value or high-level principle rather than a Repetitive Interaction. When I work with people, my standard is that any new member of a team should know exactly what the agreement means in terms of their behavior – no guess work. A Repetitive Interaction for transparency might be sharing all financial data with all employees through a Town Hall meeting that allows time for questions, answers and input.

The second challenge involves being precise in specifying the Totems. These should be quantifiable, high-stakes outcomes that the team believes that they will achieve by “walking their talk”.  Around transparency, people might come up with Totems such as: more smiling happy people, or more involvement in meetings, more trust. Whereas these would be nice,  you want these to be compelling and measurable. Compelling to assure commitment to the new behaviors, and measurable so that the team can track their performance to the agreements. Without this feedback there is little likelihood for behavioral changes.

For more information about this process, please check out my book – Leadership Practices for Challenging Times and my Process Flash Cards which are available in book form and as an e-book.

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