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  • From the frat initiation in Animal House to the bachelorette party in Crazy Rich Asians, humans love to use rituals to highlight the seasons of life. It’s no accident that “ceremonies” have found their way into the mainstream of software development in the form of daily standup meetings and formal retrospectives. Something about doing an activity in a repetitious and time-honored way is useful for imparting important lessons, ensuring continuity, and building bonds among people.

    But ceremonies have their dark side (as we can see from the film examples above). It’s easy to let the comfortable familiarity of the ritual take over and dull the edge of present-moment awareness. Rituals are most powerful when they provide a framework for doing the important work, but do not substitute for the work itself. When alert people engage in intentional ritual for a specific purpose, the collective focused energy can break down almost any barrier.

    The trick is to find the right balance between order and spontaneity.

    Rituals provide the order. It’s 10 o’clock, and the standup meeting is happening, and everyone is there for the purpose of sharing their progress and the obstacles they are facing. Without order, the random demands of the everyday will chew up time and attention. Ritual provides the necessary context for information to be shared and connections to be made.

    The spontaneity comes from the awake, present-moment awareness each individual brings to the ritual. Without this quality of attention, the ritual quickly degenerates into a formulaic routine that checks the “standup happened today” box but doesn’t add any real value.

    While each individual has a responsibility to bring their own presence and present-moment awareness to the ritual activity, skillful facilitation can help. Practices like having each participant preface their comments with “yes, and” can create an atmosphere of positivity and acceptance. But keep in mind that any spontaneity-inducing practice can very quickly be absorbed into the routine ritual vibe of the meeting. The variation “yes, and…now shut up” illustrates how the letter of the practice can be completely lacking the spirit of intention.

    Try It: Evaluate the balance between order and spontaneity in the rituals your team uses. Do you have the right structure to maintain cohesion and enable communication? Does your team stay alert and awake in the moment as they participate? Consider how you might adjust the rhythm of rituals, or introduce practices to bring more present-moment awareness to the conversation.

    Image: https://pixabay.com/en/diploma-graduation-contract-1390785/ CC0 Creative