Rituals are ubiquitous across cultures and time. From marriage and burial rituals to pregame and postgame sporting rituals, these intentional routines have been performed for centuries to foster a desired outcome or behavior.
Now, organizations are tapping into the power of ritual to encourage innovation. These small acts can be used in the workplace to engender a sense of community, build cohesion and ultimately help take an organization from good to great.
How rituals can help teams
The sporting world is filled with examples of how rituals help wire organizations to achieve greatness. In fact, New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, credits much of their success to the rituals that form the bedrock of their culture. After each match—win or lose, home or away—everyone on the team cleans the dressing room until it’s spotless. It’s a ritual designed to show thanks, build humility and reinforce that each team member is just as important as the other. The Japanese soccer team beautifully demonstrated a similar ritual when they left their locker room spotless after a gut-wrenching loss in the World Cup.
These sporting rituals are more than just good manners or superstitions. In fact, researchers are starting to find that these types of symbolic actions do in fact have an effect on behavior. According to recent studies, regularly performing rituals helps regulate emotions, elevate performance states and foster social connections.
Take for example one of my favorite workplace rituals that happens at OXO, the global housewares manufacturer. The company focuses on building products that fit comfortably into people’s hands, and they adopted a team ritual to bring that value to light. Whenever an employee finds a lost glove, they bring it back to the office to hang on the wall to depict all the different hands they are designing things for. This ritual may look like a seemingly random act on the from the outside, but OXO defined a clear intention to constantly visualize and focus on who they are building products for.
Using rituals to encourage innovation
If you want to encourage innovation on your team, design rituals that emulate characteristics that are associated with it, like being comfortable with failure and team collaboration.
Rituals can help build the muscle memory of an organization’s culture, but they have to be intentional and repeatable. Think of your organization’s operating system as its collective set of rules, norms and behaviors. These are the basic pieces of code that define how your organization runs. If you want to recode your organizational operating system to be more innovative, you must create new cultural algorithms in the form of rituals.
My team has a ritual that we take part in at the beginning of every weekly team meeting: Everyone shares a failure—personal or professional—and what they learned from it. The ritual is repeated every week and helps build psychology safety and comfort around failure. Similarly, Alphabet’s X holds an annual celebration that celebrates failure where they share stories about defunct projects, failed experiments and even personal failures. Old prototypes, sticky notes with product ideas and family mementos are placed on a small altar and burned during this ritual.
You can also develop rituals to encourage collaboration and strong team cohesiveness—characteristics which are associated with more creative teams. For example, Google employees can reward a coworker with a peer bonus when they go above and beyond and exemplify these qualities. Not only does the peer bonus ritual recognize the collaborator with a small monetary gift, but it also recognizes them with a thank you note that is sent to their peers and managers. We’ve built an entire peer bonus system online that allows team members to recognize this positive behavior again and again, helping to build reinforce this behavior.
Ultimately, the rituals you build come down to the values you want to instill. Ask yourself: How can we bring our values to life and make them tangible through rituals? For centuries, humans have innately understood that small, tangible acts done routinely can carry meaning. Now it’s time to see how they can create new cultural algorithms for your organization or team to run on.