Why Rituals: Supporting Teams When They Need It Most
With these three principles, design rituals with your team that truly matter.
We teach teams how to develop shared rituals. We sometimes get funny looks when we tell people this, perhaps because the word “ritual” can be found swimming in religious waters. So the hesitation is natural. However, people design rituals around non-religious things all the time. Birthdays, anniversaries, the first day of school, even happy hour—any time a group of people comes together for a purpose greater than themselves, they’ve set the groundwork for the creation of a ritual.
Companies invest a lot of time and money in aligning their employees under a common vision. They do this strategically and abstractly with things like core values and mission statements. They act more tactically by developing procedures, protocols, or ways of working. Both of those paths move in parallel, helping employees navigate the current state of their company while keeping an eye on the future they want to build together.
So where do rituals come in?
As teams walk these two paths, they encounter specific situations that need to be addressed. These are situations the company hasn’t explicitly directed them how to handle, or that are unique to their projects. Rituals allow the team to develop structures they can use on the fly to address those situations, and they can be as temporary or as permanent as they need them to be. Some teams we work with use rituals for decision-making every single week, while others may only use a behavior-defining ritual at the start of a project.
There are three main principles that drive the use of rituals as a recurring team activity:
A ritual must generate useful and usable outcomes. The effectiveness of rituals comes partly from the specificity of the outcomes. Rituals help teams focus on actionable items, providing clarity and accountability at just the right time in the flow of a project. Never ask teams to take part in a ritual unless they know exactly what outcomes are expected from it.
A ritual must be both adaptable and repeatable. Sure, rituals should be tailored to your team and their specific needs, but your team’s needs will change. At the same time, a ritual needs to be repeatable, so your team can internalize what they learn and apply it to future situations. A ritual that can’t be adapted loses the power of nuance, and will automatically benefit certain team members more than others. If it’s not repeatable, a ritual can’t help a team address issues that may affect them at multiple points during a project: changing priorities or scope, or the addition of new team members or stakeholders. It’s the tension between adaptability and repeatability that makes rituals stick.
A ritual must be created and followed with intention. We wrote Turning People Into Teams in part to address the dogma around the established ways of working that drag down product teams. Teams do things or are asked to do things because “that’s the process” or because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Even worse, we’re encountering teams that throw out processes because they have to disrupt or innovate the old way of doing things. These teams have lost the power of inquiry and have simply become reactive. Rituals that are followed with intention ask each team member to choose to participate and to see themselves as active contributors, both in how the ritual is formed and how it’s followed.
Rituals are not meant to be followed blindly. They are meant to be designed with others and developed with an eye towards practicality. They encourage everyone to participate and to own the outcomes. What’s more, rituals help teams negotiate the subtler, often hidden paths that are missed during projects—those moments when the greater light of their organization may not be able to guide their way.
For more about rituals, from when to do them to how to design them, get our new book Turning People Into Teams: Rituals and Routines that Redesign How We Work (from Berrett-Koehler Publishers). It’s available on Amazon or through your favorite bookseller.
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