Back to top

Business checklist

16 July 12

Bullet-point tips on the tough questions that need to be asked. This month: totems and taboos

by Neil Forrest

Is it time to challenge our core and sacred values?

It’s sometimes an uncomfortable exercise, but valuable nevertheless. Confirming that the firm’s values remain appropriate for today’s business conditions can give both comfort and fresh ideas for leveraging that core further. Could a culture of innovation, for example take you deeper into the evolving renewables sector?

What if we find an awkward truth about our culture?

Transform a radical-looking change into one that is easier to justify, by presenting the expected benefits. This will mean that buy-in across the business is more easily achieved – an established firm, for example, that always valued protecting relationships with longstanding clients may find greater profitability by acquiring new ones. Historic and forecast profitability analysis can help achieve support.

Is it all about the upside that we may be missing out on?

Not just this; these internal beliefs can also risk being destructive – for example a longstanding view that a single market specialism is best, can be blown away by focusing on the high risk of this strategy and lost opportunities in other sectors.

How do we speak about the unspeakable?

Taboos can be more easily banished with support from an external reviewer. An apolitical stance that brings experience from the wider business world will enable a more open debate and is more likely to lead to successful change. Challenging totems and taboos also needs to become a regular process and therefore one not to be feared.

Should we really worry about totems and taboos?

The theory is grounded in Freud’s assessment of human nature in group situations, where fears about change can paralyse progress and stifle innovation. Today’s business world is clearly very uncertain, and a focus on the potential harm from totems and taboos is probably more appropriate now than ever.

Neil Forrest provides strategy and funding advice to the legal sector and other business groups. t: 0131 440 4118; e:


Have your say