Team rituals are a powerful tool to intentionally design your culture.
Workplace behaviors can happen by accident or by design.
Rituals are a repeated enactment of a particular set of behaviors, scripts, and interactions — they wire our brain for success. Workplace rituals have a special power to bring people together; they give us a sense of purpose, values, and meaning.
Ritual design is a powerful way to purposefully generate change. It’s about create small, symbolic acts that will encourage the behaviors an organization rewards.
What Is Ritual Design?
Identify a problem or tension that is slowing down your team and design a ritual to fix it.
This exercise is ideal to develop a problem-solving mindset. Rather than expecting others to solve conflicts, it helps teams take ownership and jump into action.
The ritual design process can be applied for bigger problems as well as less meaningful ones. It develops a sense of curiosity, making people more aware about team tensions and how they can solve them.
How to Design Workplace Rituals
1. Identify the tension
Define the initial problem.
Do you want the team to be more candid when providing feedback? Do you want to regain momentum and pride? Does your team suffer from analysis-paralysis? Are egos or titles getting in the way?
There are many ways to identify the initial problem. One simple way is to ask each participant to list 5 issues and then everyone can vote. Agree on the criteria that they will use to vote. It can be either the most pervasive issues, the ones that–if fixed–can create an immediate impact or things that are hurting the team the most.
Example: I worked with an insurance company that was suffering from perfectionism — the CEO set the bar so high and never celebrated any wins. The team was frustrated and losing self-confidence — nothing was ever good enough.
2. Reframe the tension into a challenge
Use the “How might we…?” format to turn the tension into a challenge.
First, focus on understanding the tension. Ask the team to share everything that people do, say and think when this tension arises.
How does the issue manifest and when?
What words do people use to refer to this problem? Does any particular condition or person amplify this symptom?
How do people react? What behaviors do you observe?
How does it affect your mindset and behaviors?
Use the findings to uncover some insights. Reframe the problem into a how might we question.
Example: We asked, “How might we design a ritual to start celebrating small victories?”
3. Brainstorm ritual ideas
Facilitate a brainstorm to find a prescription for the problem. Run three or four ideation rounds with different prompts like the following ones:
What if the ritual happened outside of the office?
Turn something uncool we already do into an exciting experience.
Come up with ideas that are analog (no tech needed).
Think of an idea that could get the team fired.
Once the brainstorm is finished, select one idea the team wants to test/ implement.
Example: After discussing various ideas, the team selected one: the Gong ritual. Any member of the Executive Team could strike the gong to invite people to celebrate a new win or team achievement.
4. Design the narrative
Use the following template to design the ritual experience. The trigger is a behavior or event that will kick-off the ritual; the reward is mostly emotional–it’s how you want people to feel at the end of the ritual.
All rituals have three parts: beginning, middle, and end. Considering those three key moments when designing one.
What triggers the ritual? A new victory (a new client, revenue growth, etc.)
Beginning: Someone strikes the gong three times. The sound creates an alert. Everyone stops working and gathers around the gong.
Middle: A senior executive announces the win and celebrates the team who made the victory possible.
End: Everyone toasts, celebrates together and take a picture of the team that brought the victory home. The snapshot is then posted in the “gong wall of fame.”
Reward: A sense of collective accomplishment. People feel motivated to create new victories, and look forward to the next celebration. The ritual builds momentum.
5. Test & Iterate
Rituals are not meant to be perfect. However, you never know how people will react until you put them in practice. The best way to test a ritual is to implement it– use a low-res version (prototype) and start with a small team before you scale it to the larger organization.
Now, the team has established that the gong will be used on Fridays to celebrate all the week’s accomplishment.
Some teams have decided to implement their own version to celebrate smaller, everyday accomplishments. Rituals become more powerful when people tweak them and adapt them to their needs — the sense of ownership increases engagement.
Rituals work best when they are human and simple– don’t overcomplicate things.
Designing a ritual requires practice. Some teams crack the code immediately; most tend to come up with processes, not rituals, or with over-complicated ideas. Be patient.
Make sure people don’t confuse a ritual with routines or habits. They are similar, but not the same (read more about the differences here).
Habits are something that we do without thinking. Rituals, on the contrary, involve our full attention and emotions — they turn ordinary tasks into something meaningful.