Designing organizational rituals for creativity, community and resilience
Last week, Margaret Hagan and I led a Stanford d.school “pop-out” class on Ritual Design for Org Change. It’s a continuation of our other ritual design work and research, done within our Ritual Design Lab.
We have run many iterations of personal ritual design workshops, and now we scaled up to group levels of rituals. The pop-out was a 2-day partnership with SAP, a global business that focuses on enterprise software, design thinking, and innovation.
In the second day of our workshop to create new rituals for better org culture (see day 1’s synopsis here), we dove into prototyping new ritual interactions.
The previous evening, we had our student and partner teams learn the basics of ritual design. They practiced crafting rituals with some case challenges. Then they began mapping out key culture dynamics and work-timelines, to get oriented in the SAP org challenges.
They finished Day 1 with a big map of the partner’s culture and workflows, with some pinpointed places for where they might want to create new rituals.
What we did
We started off Day 2 with pushing the teams to go wide with ideas for rituals. Each team downloaded our app IdeaPop (still in Beta, feel free to give it a try!), to play around with the provocations and prompts we put into it.
Our teaching team made IdeaPop specifically to improve the brainstorming of rituals — to push people from beyond very transactional, 1+1=2 ways of planning out a ritual. The random combination of prompts in IdeaPop are meant to get a team thinking in more absurdist ways, to capture the je-ne-sais-quoi spark that the best rituals have. We made it to be like the Surrealist parlor games, played to get more orthogonal thinking.
After teams cycled through a few rounds of IdeaPop prompts to get an initial set of ritual ideas, they then came back together to do more traditional brainstorms — with the mandate that they had 1 hour to prep 3 rituals for their partner team.
We encouraged them to start with post-it brainstorms, but then to transition quickly to body storming. The more they could act out their ritual ideas, they could spot better what was gelling into something special — and that people would actually to do.
Design Briefs for Org Design
At the check-in point of the first round of ritual proposals, we had 5 main areas around which people were creating rituals. Each of these was based on the situation of a different design team in SAP, and also from the point of view of employees of different seniority and experience.
- Virtual Team Connections: How to connect a team that works virtually, potentially using their once-a-year in-person get together? (and especially with the condition that many of the team-members aren’t confident in their English public speaking abilities)
- Spreading Design Thinking: How do we help a team, who’s tasked with bringing design thinking to their entire company, to help others level up their skills, and make design thinking less of a check-it-off-now-I’m-done experience, and more of part of their daily practice?
- Onboarding New Employees: How do we help a creative team, that’s fairly large (around 40 people), more effectively welcome a new team member — and help this new employee to feel part of the team more quickly and seamlessly?
- Cross-Generational Team Bonding: How do we help people of different generations in a team better find ways to hang out and connect? Especially when young people would rather go out after work to get drinks or dinner, but parents need to get home to their family and don’t especially want to hang out after work hours.
- Assignment Anxiety: How do we help employees who are doing rotations or internships, who don’t have a permanent team assignment yet, get a greater sense of continuity and confidence about their place in the org? And particularly when many of the employees in this cohort may be in competition with each other for placements.
So what are some rituals that could work in these situations? After an hour of brainstorming + improv, each of the 5 teams had 3 rituals to propose. First they enacted them for review by the rest of the participants, and then (after one last refinement) they presented them to their SAP partner group.
Some of the highlights from this first round of ritual design:
- A Hollagram, that would let the one virtual member of a team appear in a full-body hologram (like Princess Leia’s Help Me! one from Star Wars), so as to do a virtual dance with the team
- A Binder of Blunders, that would be handed down from the 2nd-most recent hire on a team to the newest hire, and that would include all of the most embarrassing and unfortunate mistakes that each employee had made on the job. It was meant to show the newbie that everyone screws up, and that they will survive.
- A Crypto-Codebreaking Battle, that would have a virtual team of engineers setting out a puzzle for their team-members around the world to figure out. Kind of like NPR’s Sunday Puzzle, but more for engineers to show off their skills and engage with each other.
- A Creativity Subscription Surprise box, that would show up on employees’ desks at random times to give them a jolt of freebies, swag, and inspiration. It would be one design team in the office sending it to another team, as a gift and also a provocation.
Most of the rituals proposed at this point were positive in nature — meant to bring down barriers, connect team-members in stronger bonds, and bring a spirit of delight to work. A few others had more of a bite — with some role-playing of managers with a sense of sarcasm and slight mockery. The point was to let employees with less hierarchy to let off steam and convey more honesty, but feedback for this type of ritual was more circumspect, wary that it might turn into a negative experience.
Once the teams did their first run through of their 3 rituals for their fellow participants’ review, they then moved on to their partner group — the people they actually wanted to embrace the rituals. They performed them on-site, in the actual setting, and then got more input from their partners about whether they’d do this, or which one had the most value.
The 5 proposed Ritual Designs
By the end of the workshop, we had five working rituals, captured in videos. They were each presented to the partner org, with the expectation that we’ll follow up with the partners to see if they take them up, change them, or find them useful in a longer term.
Ritual 1: Circle Up, to help virtual teams connect better when they have in-person sessions. When they meet in person, the ritual is all about raising the energy level, celebrating each other, and increasing their bond.
Ritual 2: Graduation Ceremony for New Talent, to bring some playfulness and proper partying to a tense time for employees who are awaiting their full-time placement, after having gone through several different rotations.
Ritual 3: Design Thinking Drip Engagement, with the team who’s responsible for spreading creativity and design work throughout an org now using special delivery boxes. They regularly scale up their partners’ ability to engage in design thinking, with treat boxes full of supplies, lesson plans, and surprises.
Ritual Design 4: One Box connection, that has an employee draw from a box of mystery, to choose a ‘work-date’ thing to do, and co-worker to do it with. The two employees are randomly matched, and given a lightweight, delightful thing to do during work hours — maybe even just being each others’ lunch buddy.
Ritual Design 5: Crash the Desk, to welcome new hires with a surprise treasure hunt. When the employee is distracted away from the desk, their team-mates fill up their sad, empty new desk with personal objects. Then the employee must go on a hunt, talking to all their new co-workers to try to find the objects’ owners, and hearing stories about why they’re special.
We handed the rituals off to the partner org, in the form of presentations and videos. Some of the SAP participants declared outright that they would be putting them into practice — especially those employees that had been co-designing the rituals along with the student teams.
We will be checking in with our SAP partners to see which rituals stick, or how they morph in practice. The goal was not to create a perfect ritual to be codified and implemented, but rather offer a ritual that they could make their own. We wanted to be a catalyst and provocation.
In our debrief with students and with the teaching team, we arrived at a handful of big a-ha insights about rituals and org culture.
The most prominent (and exciting) one: Ritual Design can be a powerful means for an individual to assert the culture they want an org to have.
Regardless of their place in an org’s hierarchy, a person can craft these small, special interactions to make the org more in line with the values and behavior they want.
For people who may feel stuck or unhappy in an org, seeing the org culture through the lens of ritual design can help them figure out strategies to bring people together in better ways.
As we heard from some of our student participants, in past working environments they found the status-quo of relationships in their org’s teams to be toxic — without respect, with adversarial competition, and a lack of a ‘team’ culture. This is where ritual design thinking can help. It puts anyone inside an org as an agent of positive culture change. You do not have to wait for the org to change for you — you can quickly, creatively prototype your own relationships and team culture. Ritual design can be a tool-set to playfully craft new interactions, and embed new values into the day-to-day.
Another big takeaway: the process of ritual design is a cheap, quick, meaningful way to spark new culture. Running a workshop like we did was very inexpensive, just the cost of post-its, sharpies, and pizza. But the structure that it gives, to create a ‘safe, creative space’ for reflecting on current culture and playing around with new behaviors, is very valuable. Prototyping new rituals is quick and free — all it takes is the buy-in from employees, who are willing to engage in brainstorming and improv, and who are open to spend time in slightly surrealist, potentially embarrassing design work.
Running a workshop also can bring out the people inside an org who are potential culture-makers, but who haven’t been given the opportunity to be so yet. You don’t need a whole organization to engage in this kind of ritual/culture design — just a few ones who are passionate about better ways of working. It also benefits from having outsiders co-design with employees. The students helped bring a fresh, naive perspective, that encouraged the employees to reflect more systematically on what was going on in their work culture. They also brought creativity and their own experiences to spark good ideas for rituals.
As one of the students observed, what’s really necessary for a ritual design’s success is a person in the org to be passionate + charismatic about it. One person can craft a ritual and then spread it outward — as long as they can get others to suspend over-thinking and inertia, to join in.
We recommend others to try a ritual design workshop themselves — setting out some constraints (quick deadlines, going through the steps of the design process, and ending up with a 1-minute video), and supplying the participants with a little training, some brainstorming prompts, and some coaching. The workshop itself can be a force of positive change, helping employees give voice to where they think culture is breaking down, and then giving them creative agency to make small, funny, delightful new rituals that would improve their work-life.
Third, ritual design can be an intentional way to get to organic org culture. Seeing the workplace through the lens of rituals — and with the knowledge of the design process — can help an employee see good things that already exist, to build from one-offs into regular rituals. We call this ritual-spotting.
Or this lens can help them to see breakdowns, fail-points, and let-downs that they can then target with a new ritual as a design intervention.
We heard from several of our participants that they were most excited about developing their own toolbox of strategies and practices to develop better work-lives and team behaviors where they work. By playing with ritual design, they started to realize that one important strategy can be converting their routines to rituals.
The workshop helped them understand difference between routines (actions that get repeated regularly, like stand-up meetings) and rituals (actions that carry a je-ne-sais-quoi factor of meaning, magic, or values). They were able to see this special power that rituals have, to bring values out through behaviors, and to bring people together and give them a unique sense of satisfaction and bonding. With that insight, they started to think of strategies to make the things that they do on a regular basis (rather thoughtlessly) more meaningful by layering a ritual into them.
In our debrief, we also reflected that ritual design can be an alternative to more top-down, heavy attempts at culture-building. Rather than company retreats, centrally-planned events, and other big attempts to set culture, when employees themselves craft and spread rituals, they’re much more likely to get engagement, and they will have more meaning and resonance for the teams.
This leads to our final big takeaway: ritual design can be an antidote to “culture by default”. If an org is not intentionally crafting rituals that reflect their values and mission, it’s likely they have rituals that don’t actually serve them.
For example, in our background research, we heard many examples of org rituals that involve heavy drinking, or the manager’s personal preferences. In many cases, an org’s culture is set by rituals that have been inherited from fraternity and college rituals, or that are built too closely around the manager’s defaults.
Going through a ritual design process helps to think more deliberately about what kind of values and experiences the culture should embody — and then what kinds of behaviors would best serve this — and especially with an eye to the diversity of the employees in the org. Not everyone wants to celebrate successes, say goodbye to departing team-members, or bond with co-workers through alcohol, or through after-work parties, but often these are the go-to rituals that pop up. With more intentionality, creativity, and co-design, an org can make sure that its rituals reflect its employees’ preferences and its own values.
Now that we did our first cycle or ritual design for orgs, we will now be following up with our partners to see what sticks. We will also be thinking about other settings and use cases for this work. Several of our participants have ideas for other workshops: for health-care teams, for elephant sanctuaries, for highly-competitive tech companies.
We are also running more formal research about the process and effectiveness of designing rituals, and will be presenting these findings in upcoming conferences on design and culture.
If you’re a manager or an employee, we strongly recommend thinking about what rituals currently define your culture, and how you might open up spaces for your employees to shape these more deliberately.
As we heard from some participants, the terms ‘rituals’ and ‘culture’ may seem too soft and fuzzy to be a priority. Perhaps ‘norms’ or ‘employee satisfaction’ are more powerful in some settings. Whatever frame resonates, it’s worth exploring how better to bring these special moments into your organization, to bring out people’s creativity, to create a sense of cohesion, and to instill resilience into your org even as its fortunes and employees ebb and flow.
Please reach out to us with any ideas, thoughts, or possible collaborations around ritual design. We’re very excited to build upon the momentum of this workshop, and bring it forward to a more robust practice and to more unexpected rituals.
We are grateful to all our Stanford d.school participants for their enthusiasm and quality of work! We thank all our SAP partners who worked with the participants, including Janaki Mythily Kumar, Andrea Anderson, Sarah Fathallah, Dan Watters, Peter Weigt, Karsten Schmidt, Xiwei Zhou, Gaby Lui, Rana Chakrabarti, Laura Pickel, and Alex Scully. We thank our developer friend Metin Eskili for his help on creating the IdeaPop, and our videographer friend Serge Berig for his contributions on our video cheatsheet.