Article written by Gustavo Razzetti | 2019 | Medium

Culture is what people repeatedly do — it can happen by accident or by design.

Watching the All Blacks perform the Haka is an intimidating experience for their rivals. You wouldn’t expect those brutal rugby players to care about the tidiness of the locker room, right?

New Zealand’s national rugby team credits its success to all their rituals, not just the Haka — a spotless dressing room also matters. The cleaning ritual that happens right after a match is designed to show thanks, build humility, and reinforce that all members are equal.
Rituals drive small and tangible improvements to any team, not just in sports.

When a behavior is repeated over time, it becomes part of the culture’s muscle memory. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, rituals have a unique power to bring people together — they give us a sense of purpose, values, and meaning. Rituals are a powerful tool to purposefully generate change, rather than by accident.

The Power of Designing Rituals

The culture of any organization is a curious beast — it has a life of its own.

Culture is driven by both visible and invisible forces — rituals create a bridge between the two. They bring together the behaviors management expects and what people do.

Rituals are a repeated enactment of a particular set of behaviors, scripts, and interactions — they wire our brain for success.
Research shows that rituals help us overcome negative experiences, but also to appreciate everyday things. In the workplace, they can encourage desired behaviors and build a sense of belonging.

“Nooglers,” new employees at Google, wear beanie hats with propellers on top. Far from feeling ridiculous, the ritual makes the new hires feel part of an exclusive group.

Rituals shape the culture, not just how we behave.

A ritual design is meant to address behaviors that get in the way of achieving our goals. Rituals can be light or fun, but their primary purpose is to solve a real problem. By redesigning how people collaborate and interact, you move the culture forward.

“Rituals create a constant nudging so that, over time, a culture learns to do something naturally and intuitively.”     Tim Brown 

Not all rituals are created equal. Some solve bigger problems; others address everyday issues. Rituals must be human-centered and authentic — they must create excitement, not resistance.

Designing a ritual is a fun experience that invites everyone to craft and shape culture. That’s why I use them very often when facilitating a team offsite. People become more engaged as they are solving a team problem.

The Benefits of Workplace Rituals

1. Rituals Shape the Culture:  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. Toxic cultures encourage unhealthy behaviors and practices. Ritual design sessions help people see culture through the lens of rituals — to overcome toxicity; they must instill new healthy practices. Intentionality is the antidote to culture by accident. Rituals that are not purposefully crafted can harm your team.

Camino Information Services gets an Angry Bird desk plush toy for every new hire. By allowing employees to pick one that fits their own personality, the software development company is encouraging people to be authentic. Ritual design is an intentional way to organically build your organization culture.

2. Rituals Turn People into Change Agents:  The act of facilitating a ritual design session is an open invitation — anyone can contribute to the craft. It empowers everyone to speak up, be creative, and build the culture. Being part of a ritual design creates a sense of completion. Rather than expecting senior management to create the culture, everyone — no matter the level or background — has a saying on the values and behaviors they want to practice. In my experience, it unleashes people’s curiosity. Once they get used to the method, everyone wants to start creating their own ritual toolkit.

Flipboard has a weekly tradition called “Mock O’Clock” — every Friday, the team convenes around a huge table. People are invited to share work-in-progress — everyone gets a sneak peek into new features or tools and can provide feedback to their co-workers.
Ritual design is a democratic and collaborative approach to driving change.

3. Rituals drive teams into action:  Well-designed rituals create an emotional connection with work — they turn tasks into something more meaningful. Rituals bring together purpose, autonomy, and mastery — the three elements of motivation 3.0. Rituals have a compelling narrative: the beginning, middle, and end. They are well-crafted stories that move people forward. Powerful rituals are both simple and easy practices, but hold deep significance and emotional value. A basketball coach would have his team end practice on a good note — with a shot made, not a shot missed. After a slam dunk, everyone feels energized for what’s coming next. Ritual design is a persuasive way to move teams into action.

4. Rituals are uncomplicated solutions:  The key to designing effective rituals is understanding the real problem — rituals are a means to an end. Rituals should make your team’s life easier — if you are adding a new behavior or practice, which one will you remove?
Simplicity is essential to drive adoption — lighter and uncomplicated behaviors create more engagement. I practice a simple ritual after facilitating a workshop or team offsite: I ask participants to share the highs and lows of the session — they can be related to the content, their own journey, etc. By putting all the highs and lows post-its together, we end with a visual image of what the team experienced.
Ritual design is a human-centered approach to address team problems.

5. Rituals are flexible and evolve:  Rituals are not permanent things — don’t get stuck in a ritual. If they are too rigid, rituals will turn into a tradition rather than a path to innovation. The culture of an organization is fluid — it’s always evolving and adapting. The same should happen to its rituals. Iterating prevents your team from acting on autopilot.

Etsy’s employee food program, ‘Eatsy,’ started with people gathering at a picnic table to have lunch together. Soon enough, it evolved to a deliberate twice-weekly ritual with food provided by local vendors — community is a key value for Etsy. Even the decision to provide lunch only twice a week was an intentional one — they wanted people to go out and explore local restaurants. Ritual design is an on-going exercise.

How to Design a Team Ritual

You can create rituals to address a wide variety of team life-cycle challenges like welcoming new team members. You can design a ritual to integrate cross-generational employees or virtual teams with those who work at the office. Rituals are great to call out bad behaviors in a non-threatening way or to know people better. Rituals promote vulnerability — they make tough conversations, brutal candor, and dealing with people’s egos easier.

Follow the following steps to start designing your next team ritual.

#1. Identify the tension:  I was consulting an insurance company that suffered from perfectionism — the CEO set the bar so high that the organization never celebrated a win. The team was frustrated and losing self-confidence — nothing ever felt good enough.

#2. Reframe the tension into a challenge:  We asked, “How might we design a ritual to start celebrating small victories?”

#3. Brainstorm ritual ideas:  After discussing various ideas, the team selected one: the Gong ritual. Any member of the Executive Team could strike a giant gong to celebrate a new win — it wasn’t just about acknowledging good news but making it unique.

#4. Design the narrative:   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 they gather at a large open area. Middle: A senior executive announces the win and celebrates the team who made the victory possible. People applaud, celebrate, and toast. End: The team that brought the victory home gets a symbolic prize. A picture of that moment is then posted in the “gong wall of fame.” Reward: A sense of collective accomplishment. People feel motivated to create new victories. The ritual builds momentum — everyone wants to listen to the sound of the gong.

#5. Test & Iterate:  Rituals are not meant to be perfect. You never know how people will react until you put one in practice. After a couple of weeks, the team decided that the gong will be used only on Fridays — they would celebrate all the week’s accomplishment at once. Functional teams have decided to implement their own version to celebrate smaller, everyday achievements. Rituals become more powerful when people tweak them and adapt them to their needs — the sense of ownership increases engagement.