Rhythms: Making space for teams to self-manage

Rhythms. The regular gathering rhythms of a team. If culture is the blood, then rhythms are the beating heart, pumping fresh cultural ideas through the team’s arteries.

There’s more to rhythms than meets the eye. More than just adding regularity to our days. More than just syncing up as a team. More than carving out regular time for us to be together.

Let’s talk about how rhythms make space: space for teams to grow, space to find answers, space to form healthy cultural habits and do it all sustainably. I’d like to tell the story of how we’ve found that space with our team at Optimi.

Once upon a time, our team rhythms were driven by needs. Mostly negative needs, because we felt a pain and felt like we needed to fix it. Oh no! We’re forgetting important tasks! Better have a meeting where we sweep our tasks every week, to make sure nothing is falling through the cracks. Oh no! We’re duplicating work! Better meet regularly to share what we’re working on, so we don’t work on the same things without realising.

A few months ago, we committed to being a self-managing team. Having made this commitment, we wanted to be more intentional and proactive about shaping our culture and our practices. But intentional culture is hard. We didn’t know exactly what we needed to start doing culturally. We didn’t know how to be self-managing either. What to do? How to begin with shaping culture, when shaping culture feels like such a big, complex endeavour?

The same time every week

We started somewhere small. We said, let’s just get together at the same time every week. Let’s show up with the intention to get better at self-managing, and have faith that eventually we’ll find a way. Let’s trust that even though we don’t have many ideas now, we’ll come up with lots of great ideas as we go — as long as we make regular time to be together.

In Reinventing Organisations, Laloux gives an example of people finding difficult answers by meeting regularly:

“He showed up at the meeting with no agenda and no process; he trusted that his colleagues would somehow self-organize in these meetings, reconvening every Friday if needed, until they had answered this most fundamental question…”

Our story starts in the same place — no agenda, no process, just regularity! Initially, we started having lunch together every Wednesday. That was an easy place to begin, because most people like eating together!

Then something magical happened: we started to evolve agendas and processes. After we’d been having weekly lunches for a while, we decided that we need time to talk about our roles and ask each other our accountability questions. So we chose to do a roles meeting once a month, after one of our weekly lunches together. Next, we realised we needed some external input into our collective direction. We started inviting people we respected to have lunch with us once a month. Later, we decided to add another monthly rhythm: setting our learning goals together after sharing lunch. Then we added in a monthly strategy chat. Then a feedback rhythm. Then a session to work on the company.

Wow! That’s a lot of agendas and processes that we collected. How to fit them all in? How do we make space for our self-management processes, while still having time for getting our revenue-generating work done? Rhythms again provide the answer here — we fit everything into our regular weekly gathering! Here’s how.

This abundance of cultural activities all started from making regular space to meet. We started with only a loose intention of getting better at self-management. We gradually became more explicit about our self-management practices over time. Now we have a rich source of awesome team activities to fit into our Wednesday rhythm. It means we don’t need lots of meetings, just the one important one.

The power of habit

A key noticing here was that we started small. We just decided to eat food together initially, and not worry about putting structure on our conversation. We allowed the right things to emerge over time, and didn’t feel pressure to know all the answers up front. Here’s our hypothesis for how we improve our culture: we start small. We focus on building a small habit of talking about our culture at the same time every week.

In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg names these small habits as “keystone” habits. He suggests that success doesn’t depend on getting everything right but instead depends on:

“focussing on a few key priorities and fashioning them in to powerful levers.”

Our keystone habit was a regular cultural meeting rhythm. Spending time together was our key priority, which we fashioned into a powerful lever. It meant that we didn’t have worry about tackling the big hairy problem of getting self-management right. Instead we just focussed on spending time together.

Here’s the thing about keystone habits. Once we started using our keystone, it gave us lots of small wins that fuelled further transformative changes to our culture. Duhigg says that keystone habits allows the organisation to keep adding “small wins which eventually lead to widespread change”.


Making space for self management

So every Wednesday, after eating lunch together, we explicitly practice self-management. We carve out at least an hour of time for it, and we keep meeting, week in week out. This consistent rhythm is as solid as the tides. Self-management can be a complex practice, and having a consistent rhythm helps us to bring form and dependability into this complex space. When we make the space to meet regularly, we can trust that we’ll find all the answers we need in time.

Here’s the key takeaways for us:

  • If you’ve got a hard cultural problem to solve, start with making regular time to meet.
  • Don’t worry about getting all the right answers at the start. When you meet regularly, the right ideas and outcomes will follow.
  • With one weekly gathering, you can fit in a LOT of different team culture activities by using a rotation system (as pictured earlier).
  • With a regular meeting time, you’re able to get lots of cultural work done while still having plenty of time to do the important revenue-generating work.
  • Focus on your “keystone habit”: a habit that builds small wins which fuel further cultural change.

Written by Rupert Snook from Optimi