Meditation in the morning. Sunday family dinners. Birthday routines. We most often think about rituals in our personal lives. But how do they impact the business world?

In today’s complex world, creativity is an organizational imperative. Over the years, we've observed how rituals posses a certain magic, especially in how they help unlock creativity within individuals and organizations. Repetition of simple acts can shape how people behave and think. Contemporary research shows that rituals can increase focus, enhance performance, and reinforce desired behaviors. At IDEO, we use rituals all of the time, with our teams and across our partnerships. (Our CEO Tim Brown talks more about rituals and other subjects in IDEO U’s course Leading for Creativity.)

Here’s an example of a small ritual that had big impact.

A few years ago, one of our design studios was having a tough time. People were working extremely hard and focusing solely on getting their own work done. But leadership understood that creative cultures need to support behaviors of collaboration. There was a need for folks to look up from their own work to help one another out. So, the studio’s leadership set out to design a ritual to amplify collaboration and catalyze creativity, without damaging people’s focus.

Now on Wednesdays, we have a ritual called Tea Time. Two sensations kick it off. The fresh scent of baked goods and tea permeate the workspace. Then a cow bell rings. People drop what they’re doing, walk away from their computer screens, and come together for ten minutes to drink a cup of tea and indulge in a sweet treat. Here’s the trick. The magic of Tea Time exists in what we call “casual collisions.” It’s when IDEO-ers - working on different projects or in different areas - cross paths and share what they’re working on, what’s inspiring them, and by virtue of that exchange, they collaborate. Links, emails, and ideas get passed back and forth for days afterwards. Tea Time has been so successful that it’s spread across all IDEO locations.

But we don’t just design rituals inside IDEO, we design them for clients, too. Rituals have encouraged a risk adverse culture to celebrate agile experiments as a means to learn quickly, helped analytic teams get crafty and express ideas in more tangible ways, and encouraged hospital leadership teams focused on efficiencies to stay inspired by patients’ needs. These rituals nudged organizations toward beliefs and behaviors that support creativity.

How to Design a Ritual for a Culture of Creativity

There are five simple steps, which you can use to design rituals for your team or organization. We’ve used these same steps inside IDEO and when we consult outside organizations.

Step 1: Identify tensions in your culture

With Tea Time, we saw a tension with individuals collaborating with each other and getting immersed in their own work.

Step 2: Flip the tension into a question

We asked, “How might we design a ritual that amplifies collaboration across IDEO teams?”

Step 3: Brainstorm ways to answer the question

We didn’t just land on Tea Time right away. We came up with tons of ideas-musical chairs, collaborative commutes, roving reporters. We encouraged wild ideas and went for quantity.

Step 4: Try it

We then had to test out ideas. We prototyped. Tea Time started off with store bought goods and English tea. But then it evolved over time to personally baked treats and speciality teas.

Step 5: Reflect on it

We didn’t get Tea Time perfect right away. We had to iterate and make it better. Now, different people bake treats that are special to them, their culture, or just the time of year. This provides stability yet diversity to keep people coming back for casual collisions each week.

Leading for Creativity

Designing rituals is just one way you, as a leader, can help unlock and support creativity in your organization. There are lots of other ways to explore, too, depending on the context and needs of your team. 

What are your rituals?

Published on: May 13, 2016