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Rituals for Creativity- and Innovation-Centered Workplaces
Photo credit: Jen Ray [jenrayart.com, @jen_ray_nyc on Instagram]
In part one of this series, we examined the essential nature and purposes of rituals, now it’s time to take a closer look at rituals appropriate to business contexts where creativity and innovation set the standard.
Hopefully, part one convinced you of the reasons why rituals are helpful add-ons to your workplace culture and/or work practices, but if you still find yourself struggling with their “irrationality” and “inefficiency”, consider that these are actually key aspects of what make rituals what they are – and more importantly, what make them work. It’s rituals’ measurable benefits that have convinced even the scientists and academics who study them that: “the more rituals, the better”.1
In their book ”Rituals for Work”, authors Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan of Stanford’s Ritual Design Lab identify five key themes where rituals can provide support within organizations: (1) change & transition, (2) creativity & innovation, (3) community, (4) performance & flow and (5) conflict & resilience.
Within these themes, rituals can be sub-categorized according to whether they are applicable at the individual, team or organizational level. Where appropriate in this article, we’ll give examples for each of these sub-categories as we explore rituals for creativity & innovation, performance & flow and community. We’ll also highlight some options for remote teams, given that many employees are currently working virtually, due to the coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic.
GETTING IN THE ZONE – RITUALS FOR CREATIVITY
The benefits of using rituals for creativity are summed up nicely in a 2018 article in Forbes: “incorporating some sort of emotional, meaningful, non-rational ritual into your day may offer a creative booster shot...Turning down the volume on the cognitive control [...] sets in motion the maneuverings of powerful, less self-conscious regions of the brain, adept at skill execution. These networks are important for creativity with a capital C. Capital C creativity is a term neuroscientists use to describe states that give rise to the world’s great innovations and works of art.”2
If you are a participant or alum of the Berlin School, you may well be a seasoned creative thinker with years of practice getting out-of-the-box ideas onto a blank sheet of paper or a screen. Perhaps you have a few tried-and-tested systems in place to start your work sessions: going for a walk or a run, making a fresh cup of coffee, sitting in your favourite spot, flipping through your favourite magazines. These kinds of activities are valid and certainly helpful on many levels, however, they most likely do not fall into the realm of ritual. Ritual, as explained in part one, is an activity done with “intention, attention and repetition”. Running and ingesting caffeine are usually things we do in autopilot or with a rational intention, while sitting in a comfy chair and reading a great magazine might get us in the ‘zone’, but the lack of pattern or structure here also eliminates these activities from the rituals category.
As long as it integrates the magic trio of “intention, attention and repetition”, the shape your creativity-rousing ritual takes can be as simple as lighting a candle, singing a song or placing a personally significant object on the desk in front of you (along with that cup of coffee!). Think about all the rituals you’ve witnessed in your life – from religious services to sports events to childhood games – and draw on these to design an action or series of actions that have your own creative fingerprint.
For Teams and Organizations
Brainstorming via Zoom can feel constricting – much of creative collaboration is about the storm of ideas flying back and forth so quickly there’s barely time to express things out loud. One ritual for getting in the creative zone as a group that we use here on the Berlin School’s creative team is to define a shared question or intention, get in a comfortable position, then turn on a 3-to-5-minute mellow instrumental track, close our eyes and let our minds wander freely. When the track is over, we jot down our ideas in words or pictures and then take turns sharing what we came up with. Finally, we decide as a group which ideas we like best and refine the details.
As a 2019 article from InVision explains, “the team that’s best-equipped to tackle creative challenge is the one built from individuals who are comfortable being their true selves at work, able to safely let down their barriers and less afraid of potential failure. Without expending energy on those fears and discomforts, they are more open to innovative thinking.”3
Engaging in playful activities, such as Exquisite Corpse, a communal portrait-drawing game invented by the Surrealists (and included in Ozenc and Hagan’s book - read how it works here) is one way to cultivate the letting down of barriers between colleagues. Another route is to take the taboo and shame out of failure – which is a critical ingredient of innovation – by celebrating failed endeavors with Failure Wakes (you can read a description here – and discover some other innovative ritual ideas).
FINDING FOCUS – RITUALS FOR PERFORMANCE & FLOW
For Individuals and teams
One extremely simple, low-budget Stanford Design Lab ritual successfully tested by us in the writing of this piece is called “The Focus Rock”. As the name suggests, it’s a way of telling your brain it’s time to zero in on your work – you simply place a significant object on your work surface (such as a small rock), determine the timeframe in which you want to stay focussed and what you want to accomplish. When the time is up (or task done), you thank the object and put it away.
An equally simple organization-wide ritual is the use of a “touchstone” – alluded to already in part one. Ozenc and Hagan give the example of the “Play Like a Champion” sign that each member of the University of Notre Dame’s football team touches for good luck as they go onto the field. Creative minds are of course free to imagine all kinds of other touchstones – whether objects or messages or both – that embody their organization's spirit and approach.
MAKING CONNECTIONS – RITUALS FOR COMMUNITY
Silicon Valley appears to be at the forefront of dreaming up out-of-the-box community-building rituals, and perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that experimentation and creative collaboration are a sine qua non to technology innovation.
Conflict (or at least friction) is an inescapable – and even essential – component of collaborative work. Lots of chefs in the kitchen can mean lots of opinions and mindsets clashing around like so many pots and pans. Even if we know intellectually that disagreement and pushback are part of the process, it can be hard to process the emotions that get triggered when someone says they disagree or don’t like what we’ve done.
In their book, Ozenc and Hagan suggest a “Burn the Argument” ritual as a way to clear the air in these cases, explaining that rituals can be tremendously powerful for navigating conflicts and empowering resilience and should not be seen merely as tools for fun and celebration.
In “Burn the Argument”, affected team members write down their feelings about the argument on pieces of paper, then tear them up, and, as a team, burn them. Depending on the team dynamics, a neutral outside facilitator can also be brought in to run this ritual.
It’s a frank way to acknowledge that a conflict occurred and that the team has decided to move on – while still respecting the emotions and vulnerability at stake.
You’ll find a wealth of community-building rituals – also fun and celebratory ones – you can use as inspiration in designing your own here – and if you feel like you need a bit more guidance, “Rituals for Work” also includes a simple 7-step guide to designing rituals.
At the Berlin School, we teach creative business leaders that it’s essential to “walk the talk”. Applied to the realm of rituals, this suggests that if your team or business delivers innovation or creativity as its primary function, creative in-house rituals that promote innovation might wisely be an extension of this, further underscoring your company DNA.
Circling back to the questions we raised in part one about the suitability of some typical corporate rituals for creative businesses, in fact, onboarding rituals, birthday celebrations, team lunches, victory sessions and feedback rounds are absolutely all sound rituals for creative businesses to embrace. The question creative business leaders should be asking themselves though is: how can these rituals become an extension of our unique culture? It’s this innate – and unforced, as Ozenc and Hagan stress – in-house energy that awakens team bonding and can give rise to identity fusion, galvanizing individuals around a common vision and ultimately making the results of the combined group effort even greater than the sum of each individual’s talents and contribution.
1 Kursat Ozenc and Margaret Hagan, Rituals for Work (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2019), 25.