Can we design rituals to improve orgs’ culture?

Yesterday and today, Kursat Ozenc and I are teaching a pop-out course at Stanford, in partnership with SAP, all about ritual design for org change. It takes our previous design work on designing personal rituals (which we’ve been cataloguing over at Ritual Design Lab), and asks:

Can we intentionally design organic rituals to build cohesive, creative, resilient organizational cultures?

We have a wonderful mix of Stanford students, doctors, researchers, and faculty, together with many different people who work at SAP — all of whom are interested in this central question. How can we harness the magic, meaning, and values of rituals (using the design process) to get to healthier cultures?

Last night we started class off by doing a few welcome and introductory ritual improvisations. (It only takes 5 minutes to create a new ritual.) We left a prop on each of the workshop’s tables, and the groups of 4 or 5 people who sat at each, had to use the prop to create a welcome-intro ritual for each other.

We had rubber duck head-drops, the knighting of each other with thick black glasses, bear-paw growls, and pinecone tosses.

Then we dived into some groundwork theory on what rituals are, how they play a role in organizational culture, and what some examples of the promise of more intentional culture-building are — that show the power of rituals to make a better workplace.

An adaptation of James Haskell’s culture map. Rituals can link the visible with the invisible, and through behavior make beliefs + values stronger.

After that background, we gave each group of students and partners a case challenge. You are a manager, who has to deal with a problem situation: your companies’ customers records have just been hacked; you just fired a disruptive employee; you have nervous employees right before they year-end review. Can you craft a ritual to respond to this situation?

Each team took 10 minutes to play with what an appropriate ritual might be, and then enacted it for the room. Here is one: a mourning ceremony for a fired team-member.

A ritual one team created in 10 minutes to mourn a disruptive employee who was just fired

From that 15-minute case challenge, the teams then moved into the proper design cycle that we’ll be working on for the remainder of the workshop. They began interviewing their SAP partners about their workcycles, typical days, current org culture, etc. They took tours of the work spaces and hang-out spaces on campus. And they started to map out everything they were learning.

The Debrief session: post-its, mapping, making sense
Finding spaces for new rituals in a day, a work-cycle, or a journey through the company

Today we’ll use those maps as jump-off points for brainstorming new rituals. We created an app IdeaPOP, specifically for this class, to inspire better ritual designs — with other rituals remixed into brainstorming prompts.

We created a ritual design brainstorming app, IdeaPOP for the class.

We’ll write more about the rituals that come out of today’s design cycle — stay tuned!