Presence: our rituals show what matters to us

Stanford’s Kursat Ozenc gives the roadmap to designing culture

This episode is part of the Presence project: Presence: Fixing culture starts with your calendar, not your office

Kursat Ozenc is a product designer who he teaches at Stanford university, He teaches on the subject that we can all learn from which is the idea that culture can be designed. The specific tool he uses to design culture is the creation of workplace rituals.

Kursat’s Substack newsletter

Kursat’s first book is here and the second, on virtual meetings is here.

The reading list for Kursat’s course is here

How do you design a ritual? A step-by-step guide

Kursat’s book includes the suggestions that: ‘The rituals in our life show what we care about’. Critically then creating rituals demonstrate what our culture values.

Kursat gives five use cases for rituals:

  1. For change
  2. Creativity
  3. Performance
  4. Conflict
  5. Community

If you like this episode you’ll also like the episode that accompanies it – which goes into depth about specific rituals that companies have used. Listen to that episode here.

A full transcript of the episode is below.

If you liked this also check out this second episode on rituals:

Claudia Wallace talks about Crisp Thursday (Connection)

Andy Puleston talks about Pizza Meetings (Connection) and Leaving Speeches (Change)

Dan Pink talks about Friday Night Experiments (Creativity)

Biz Stone talks about Hack Week at Twitter (Creativity)

Dr Heidi Edmondson talks about Ten at Ten (Performance)

Heidi has a wonderful new book out – Darkness in the City of Light

You can also hear the original episodes that each of these extracts came from by click the links above. I have to say that those whole episodes are worth revising. Andy Puleston talks about how effective the culture was when it was a series of affiliated tribes and he articulates the role that buildings play in shaping cultures.  Andy is now Director of People & Culture at Circulor, an award winning technology business.

Still want more?

A post about rituals in the workplace


Kursat Ozenc 

Yeah, my name is Kursat Ozenc. I’m a product designer working in the software industry. Mainly I design software products, but I also teach courses. I’m a lecturer at Stanford D school. And my focus in my teaching is mostly around designing organizational culture through rituals. So I’ve been doing this for the past nine, 10 years


And did your interest in culture start? Was it your interest in culture that made you interested in how you could be intentional about creating it? What made you curious about culture?

Kursat Ozenc 

Well, it grew from my interest really grew from my work in my PhD. So a little bit of background. So I grew up in Turkey. I went to college and then I decided to do a PhD and I ended up at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. So in my PhD, I looked at transitions, how people…

transition and how as a designer we can support people when they have a new role, like they become a new parent or they move to a new city. And in that research, one of our findings, my findings was that people use rituals as a way to navigate change. Almost it becomes like a tool for them to adapt to the…

their new roles, their new environments. And that insight really stuck out for me because I’m personally, I also like moved from Turkey to United States and I felt that personally as well. So I think after my PhD, I started working in the industry. After a couple of years, I wanted to almost reignite that insight. Like, can we take that insight?

and actually design these rituals for people either they are in their personal lives or in their work lives. I think that was how it was it started for me like at that point I’m on.


Could you clarify what the difference is between a ritual, a habit and a routine?

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah, definitely. So we have a working definition because in our classes, we always start with that, like, oh, how are they different? So rituals are actions we do intentionally following a certain pattern of behavior or a certain script. But they usually, rituals involve some kind of symbolism in them. So people invest meaning into them. Like when you think of our

like most basic rituals in the sports, like you have a flag that you follow for your team, right? I think that’s the main difference between ritual and routine is that symbolism, that meaning -making element to you. So rituals are actions that we do to almost make meaning in our lives. And then routines, on the other hand, they are…

things that help us to go about our lives. They are more almost like infrastructure for our rituals. They help us to go through our day, but we realize a routine when there’s a breakdown in the routine. Like when you don’t recognize the train unless there’s a breakdown in the schedule, right? And that’s how I differentiate them. I think one of them is more like infrastructure, the routine, and the ritual is where you…

find meaning or make meaning in your daily life. Yeah.


I saw the phrase that said the rituals in our life show what we care about. Are rituals always intentional? So if an organization, if a family, if any sort of group has rituals, are they always deliberate or explain to me the relationship between rituals and a culture of any description.

Kursat Ozenc 

Yeah, I think how I look at the ritual in the culture context is rituals make culture more tangible and visible. If you think of a parent and a child when they are having their Sunday ritual, like in the morning, I think that shows that their parent is caring for.

her child and then same, I think it becomes more almost like a container for them to care for each other, for instance. Yeah, and another point that I want to make is there is also an interesting tension between ritual and a routine. So when rituals lose their meaning or people forget about the intention behind the ritual.

then that ritual becomes more like a routine. I think that almost retracts itself from that meaning -making space into something more like a routine, and then it loses its meaning. So there is that kind of relationship to it. That’s why we need to keep rituals more, if you see a shift in the intention, you need to almost update your ritual or find a new way to connect to your.

your intention in either your personal life or your work life.


I wonder if you could give us an example there, because I sort of, I can see it sounds a touch abstract. Could you give us an example of maybe one or two executions of that?

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah, so I think one example from a work life that’s more prominent is the onboarding rituals. They can be very meaningful. For instance, when someone joins your team, like a new employee, that’s almost like a pristine time for you to help them to onboard your culture, right? I think…

But if you are not intentional about that onboarding ritual, it can be more about getting them set up, like giving them their laptop or giving them some instructions. But the ritual almost elevates that. Maybe you want, with that onboarding ritual, you also want to show what your team cares about. For instance, you want, there are these examples, like from Zappos, for instance, when,

New employees first join, they have to first two weeks, they need to go to a call center and respond to the customer’s calls. That just shows the value that Zappos stands for. They are like customer first mindset and they want every employee to almost embrace that value through that onboarding first two weeks, they need to.

talk to customers, they get their response. And then from after that two weeks, then they can almost decide. I think I’m not sure if they are still following that, but they have the option to resign from their work or continue on their work. So it almost shows like, okay, this is how we stand for, do you agree with our values? If you do, then you can continue on your job. So I think that’s one.

I will say onboarding is really one very low -hanging fruit for organizations to really show their culture and the ritual almost becomes a vehicle, a container for them to show what they really value.


Yeah, because what I liked about that is, as I saw you say that culture is designable like product. And that’s a really interesting idea because so many people feel that culture, they feel they don’t have many levers to control it, to influence it. So someone saying you can design it as intentionally as you design product is a really interesting suggestion. And I guess in that ritual there, the onboarding ritual, people can see that, okay, yes, an organization can signal what matters, they can set about trying to create something that is very explicit, that new people get oriented. Is that how we should think about it? Firstly, I’d love you to sort of articulate why you think culture is designable in that way and maybe sort of what the pitfalls are there.

Kursat Ozenc 

Yeah, yeah, I think that’s a great question. Yeah. So that’s how we start our class to almost like there’s this understanding that culture is soft, culture is nebulous, it’s abstract. That’s what I have a working definition. When I teach students, I say culture is almost like a living system of…

visible and invisible forces like the, and it’s an interplay between those two forces. So invisible forces like the company’s values, the assumptions about work, things that we can’t really touch and feel when we enter into a lobby of a building. But there are also these visible forces like the lobby, the office, the tangible things. And once we,

start to recognize these visible and invisible forces, then it becomes more something like a tangible. I think that’s what I’ve been also framing culture as a system. So it’s like a system design. So we can, once we know those forces in play, we can actually intervene with rituals, for instance. Rituals can be a vehicle to bridge those values and those tangible things. So that becomes something more.

graspable and tangible. And once you know that’s tangible, you can say, okay, last quarter we introduced these three rituals in our onboarding and then you can actually test which ones work best. It becomes more like that kind of product mindset. We have these experiments running and actually these two really, you can maybe, by asking people how they felt about those rituals.

or if it improved any work processes in your organization, you can then say, okay, these two rituals worked well, this didn’t work very well, then you can stop that experiment and continue on another one. It’s really this idea of a product mindset that we have been trying to introduce in the class and in our work, yeah.


So I guess the way you describe that is almost like team culture and it’s something that’s very touchable and tangible rather than thinking necessarily about organisational culture across a bigger span but more how can a team define the culture of how they’re working and take very explicit actions to impact that. Is that the scale that you think this works best?

Kursat Ozenc 

I think that’s a good way of thinking about it. But you can… I’ve been framing this more in the system. You have the individual, like, interpersonal rituals. You have team rituals and you have organizational rituals. So you can scale your rituals based on your company’s needs. So I would say, yeah, the team culture is probably the sweet spot.

But you can also think of a company -wide town hall meeting. You can have a ritual like, for instance, there are these examples that we featured in our book, too. When an organization wants to shift the mindset across the entire organization, for instance, they want to be a more customer -centric company, they can introduce a…

ritual in their town hall meeting, like a voice of the client. And in every town hall meeting, they invite a customer and then they spend five minutes hearing their story. I think I will say it works in different scales. It doesn’t necessarily work on one scale, one level. You can design rituals in these multiple scales, including like the 101s, your team culture and…

the broader organizational culture. Yeah.

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah, yeah, that’s a great way of, yeah. If you think of behavior change in general, I think one thing that I observe is a great, there are all these rich body of research around the behavioral economics and behavioral change models, like all these well -known books. One thing that Ritual can, I see in those models is almost like oversimplification of.

the cultural context that people are living in. So one way to think about behavior change is really it can help people to amplify their goals. It can become something more like an intention amplifier. For instance, when you want to wake up early in the morning, right? That might be a very tangible goal, but…

What ritual can help you is that it can help you to almost unveil like why do you want to wake up early? Like why do you want to, it helps you to anchor into the why, like the meaning behind your change goal. And then it can, at the beginning, because what happens in behavior when you want to shift the behavior is you want lots of intentionality at the beginning. And rituals are great.

containers for that because it’s all about intentionality when it comes to a ritual. So I will say that it can be intention amplifier. It can help you unveil your values, like what you, the context that you are living in, like what, what things really matter for you and help you articulate that. And then maybe the final piece, the third thing I will say is it can also help you disrupt your existing habits. So I think because in changing behaviors,

It’s not just you are introducing a new behavior, but you are also trying to stop a certain, like the existing behavior, right? I think it can be a way to, by artificially putting this in ritual, you are almost saying to your existing habits, now I am in a different mindset. I want to change my behavior. So yeah, I think it can help in that three levels. That’s how I’m seeing.


love to go on now and just talk about the different functions or the different objectives. And I’ll go through a few of those, but I’m really struck that you’ve got people that you teach this course at Stanford’s D school and people come in and, and I was really surprised actually with the wide range of these, uh, the applications, a wide range of applications. When people first come in and they’re in this course, do they struggle to brainstorm rituals or actually, is this something that…

We’re already familiar with, but we’ve not thought about it in an explicit way. When people come into the course, do they get better at this very quickly or do they actually start far better than they thought?

Kursat Ozenc 

Hmm. That’s a very good question. I would say, um, there are, I think it’s, yeah, there are maybe two things I would want to say. The first one is, um, yes, they are familiar. I mean, they can relate to rituals. That’s why they pick this class actually. That’s like, Oh, okay. Rituals. Uh, I can, yeah, I think there is that kind of persona who are familiar, who want to almost codify these. So yeah, I would say.

That’s, yeah, they almost find a way to, oh, okay, this is how it’s actually properly done. So there’s that kind of persona. But there’s also, there is some resistance to rituals as well, because one thing that I’m observing is when we do our ideation sessions, there’s this tendency to like ideate more practical or productivity.

I call them more like habits. They tend to ideate around more habitual activities, not like ritualistic activities. What I mean by is that because that’s how we are programmed, but we always think about productivity, efficiency, but in ritual there is that kind of quirky element, like that symbolism. That’s why…

in our ideation sessions, we give these prompts to students. Now think about a prop, think about a magical prop. So really pushing them, breaking from that productivity mindset to something more magical, more special. So that helps, I think we even have these role play activities to help them to.

push the boundaries from routine to ritual. It’s not just about creating a regular team practice, but we want you to think about something quirky, something special that people find meaning. So, yeah, to summarize, I will say, yes, they are more familiar because they have rituals in their own lives from their backgrounds, but there’s also resistance because…

Kursat Ozenc 

in our education system or how we think about work, we always tend to think the practical, the efficient as the desired state. But in ritual, we need to almost push that a little further because that’s where more meaningful or more quirky things live. Yeah.


Yeah. So I wonder, are there critical elements of a ritual? I wonder if we could take one. You give sort of five different use cases. I wonder if we could sort of think of a change ritual. You say rituals are very good for change. If we were thinking of a change ritual, can you think of what would be critical elements that we would be looking for as part of a ritual about change?

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah. In our work with rituals, we always talk about the ingredients of a ritual. So there’s the intention element. There’s the trigger of when and where your ritual happens. And there’s the ritual flow, like how ritual starts, the beginning, what happens in the middle, and what’s the closure of a ritual.

So those things, just to give you an example on that, for instance, you are kicking off a new project or you want to embrace certain ways of working in this new project, right? So your intention there is, let’s give the example of…

You want your team members to work very well together. So that’s your intention. You want flexibility, like a collaborative mindset, embracing different boundaries, people’s different boundaries. So that’s your intention. And your trigger moment is maybe the first meeting where you kick off the meeting, kick off the project. And then you can introduce this.

user manual ritual. I think that’s, I think you featured a version of this in our book too. So people, there are these four or five different dimensions. They, for instance, like when I want to meet during my project, you say, I like to meet between 7 a .m. and 9 a .m. I don’t want, I can’t meet after 3 p .m. because I need to pick up my kids.

So everyone feels, for instance, when they can meet for this project. Second, like what’s my, do I prefer Zoom versus Slack chat, chat on Slack? So they can almost write down their preference for communications. And you can have these three or four different levers for how people should work with you. And then at the beginning of that kickoff meeting,

Kursat Ozenc

then you have almost like a consensus. Okay, as a team, we can only meet between 11 a .m. and 3 p .m. And for light touch communications, we use Slack. And for deep conversations, we have an in -person meeting. You almost create that consensus. And then at the end of that, I think then you really have that whatever goal you have in mind, like you want that collaborative.

team spirit for the entire project, you set that tone from the beginning because of this container activity, like a ritual activity. So that’s one example. Yeah.


And so the different scenarios that you gave that you might want to choose to have rituals, you said that the change, creativity, community, conflict, and performance or performance and flow. I just wonder if I sort of threw each of those at you. I wonder if you could just give us a really clear example of maybe how a firm has done one of those. Let’s talk to change.

there and you did talk about sort of set up projects. So there are any other examples of a change ritual that people might use.

Kursat Ozenc 

Yeah, I think one fun example from our book is when two organizations had a merger, like the idea Chicago was merging with a data science company. And for that huge change, huge transition, they had a wedding ritual. So they created the whole ritual following the pattern of a wedding. They have vows. They…

created the values for two companies to sign and then they even had a cake, wedding cake for that merger. So it can be as big as that, but it can also be as small as something like a small onboarding ritual where at the end of the onboarding of a new employee, you have a graduation ceremony for that cohort of new employees.


Oh, I love it. I love it. I love that. A creativity ritual, maybe? Could you give us an example of that?

Kursat Ozenc 

Yeah, one fun ritual is the mad lips. I think it’s well known in the design community, but I would say if you want to almost shift people’s mindsets for it’s okay to ideate. So you can introduce this mad lip ritual, which is you give three, uh, unrelevant idea, like prompts and then ask people to.

come up with ideas combining those three prompts. So that can be one way. And you can do this at the beginning of a team meeting or before a design thinking workshop. So that can be one example for creativity ritual. Yeah. Yeah.


Right, so it’s just systematizing, like, getting people in the idea of this idea creation in meeting environments.

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah. And then the idea, the real intention is really to help loosen them up. Like, oh, it’s okay, actually. If, and then once you have these ridiculous ideas, they, I think they, they will be in that this different mindset. And then, then you can introduce your workshop agenda. And I think one thing we use these kinds of small rituals is really to shift people’s mindset or like, like, introduce this new man.

almost prime them for what’s coming next. For an innovation workshop, for instance, you can start that workshop with these little rituals and then that will help people loosen up. Okay, now it’s okay for me to come up with these random ideas and then you can come to more serious stuff later.


The third of the five different types is probably the one we most immediately think of when we think of rituals, which is community and creating community. I suspect there’s hundreds of examples of this. Have you seen an inventive use of community rituals?

Kursat Ozenc

So one thing that’s well known at Stanford D school is the pinning ceremony. So this, when students finish up their semester in the class. So we invite this school, we created these pins for like following the these schools logo. And we have this pinning ceremony where each student like we pair up students and that students pin each other. And it’s almost like giving now at the end of this 10 week class, now you become a designer, you become a design thinker. I think that’s one way you almost put this.

give them that recognition at the end that they finally completed that journey and then now they become designers, design thinkers. So that’s one way. And the ritual there is really, you have a symbol and you, by putting that pin to people, you almost, yeah, almost symbolizing that now they become that special person. So that’s one example.

There can be more daily community rituals too. You can have these check -in rounds where in your team stand -ups, people can answer very simple questions about their personal life. So in that way, you can connect people in more meaningful way before you start the actual work tasks. So that’s another example.

And even I think we had some examples of remote holiday parties where people in different locations, they recorded like playlists for each other and then they listened to like the playlist from Bangalore, playlist from Palo Alto, playlist from UK. So you can have that kind of share outs as well between the different teams. Yeah.


Yeah. And there was just another couple of, of, of concepts for rituals that I wanted to cover. One of which was conflict resolution. How would you create a ritual to deal with conflict? I’m really intrigued by that.


The rituals are good at conflicts as well. So one example I can give is actually something that I was also part of designing. So it’s called the burn the argument. So when a conflict arises, there is lots of emotions involved, right? I think.



Kursat Ozenc

One thing you need after that heightened of emotions is like a safe space to pass through those emotions or start a new chapter, like if it’s possible. So in this burn the argument ritual, what happens is after that conflict happens, you invite a third party, maybe someone from another team that you trust.

someone neutral and then they come in and then in a safe space in a ritual like in the safe space that person asks the two parties to write down all the emotions that happened in that moment and then they literally write them down on a post -it note and then you also make sure you convey that it’s

you won’t be sharing this with the other person, just write them down. And then after that, they almost, yeah, that asked them to tear down those post -its and put them on a shredder or a tear them up in pieces. Then everyone puts those raw negative emotions in a box together. And after that,

the neutral party takes the box to outside, either put them on a shredder or light them on fire so everyone watches it burn together. And then once the ritual is over, then maybe that neutral party can start, can invite people to have a conversation together. So that’s one example for conflict ritual. And I will say there were…

Couple others we heard from companies to wanting, I remember there was like a circle, like a community circle where you set the rules for that safe circle and then people, whatever they share in that meeting, it doesn’t go out. So it’s like, you can create that kind of community circle as well. So that can be another example.


And the final one, I guess it’s pretty familiar, the idea of a performance or a flow ritual. And I guess we’re all familiar with like a weekly check -in meeting or a management board meeting. Is that an example of that?

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah, the performance rituals, I think we really got lots of inspiration from sports, like from athletes for that ritual. There might be examples like before a high -stakes meeting, maybe the teams, the team who were, who’s gonna present to the executives, for instance, they come in, they huddle, and they have this amp -up ritual, like similar to…

before a basketball game, the team players come together and they do their special secret handshake to feel, or they do their shout outs. They’re very similar to that. So then it’s really the idea there is to boost confidence to feel that, oh, we are in this together. And then after that confidence boost, they go out and do their presentation to the executives. So that can be one example.

Um, and another, yeah, the example that you, you mentioned, uh, it can be before a, uh, performance review, you can do another, like the calming down the person. You can have a ritual for that. Yeah. It’s really about, uh, managing your energy and, uh, boosting your confidence or calming down. So that there can be different ways you can position a performance ritual for, for a team. Yeah.


I love it. And so I guess, you know, just to sort of to help us wrap up, can you give us an example then of, of maybe how this has helped some of the people who’ve been on your course? Have people said it’s helped them change their culture or have people, have people seen a tangible impact on the way they run their, their teams, their business?

Kursat Ozenc

Yeah, I think, yeah, one of our, in one of our earlier classes, we designed the onboarding ritual, like students designed the onboarding ritual for a team that we partnered with. And it really helped that team. Yeah, even after a couple of years, they still have a version of that ritual running when they welcome their new employees.

So I think that’s one example. So it really helped them to jumpstart their relationships between the new employee and the existing employees. So that’s one example. I guess that conflict one also, I think that’s tried out, like the burn your argument one. So I got a good response from that as well. But I would say…

There are these low hanging frills when it comes to shifting culture. One of them is the onboarding rituals. So those are moments that it’s not too hard. Like you can really, it’s really about giving some thoughts on how you welcome a new person. And if you know what you stand for, for your team, you can signal that to the new person. So I will say that that has been.

that has worked well. And when it comes to more hairy challenges, yeah, that’s something I’m also looking forward to do more follow -ups, more experiments on, like how do you implement a three to six month? Like if there’s, for instance, a collaboration challenge, how do you measure that in a longer period?

I think those are more maybe future work that I’m looking forward to doing more assessments of how they influence the organization. Yeah.


I’m grateful for the time you’ve taken. If someone’s interested in your work or wants to be inspired by it, where should they go? What should they look at? What should they read?

Kursat Ozenc

So we have a medium publication called Ritual Design Lab. I also have a new newsletter called Culturescapes. So it’s on Substack. Definitely I recommend that as well. And we have two books, Rituals for Work and Rituals for Virtual Meetings. They’re both from Wiley. And they’re really playbooks. They are very practical. They help people. like those use cases whenever they need to shift their culture, there are all these practical examples they can get inspiration from. Yeah.


I love it. But there’s links to those in the show notes. And I’m like, I’m very grateful that you’ve taken the time to sort of talk through this stuff, because I find it absolutely compelling and fascinating. So thank you so much for taking the time.

Kursat Ozenc

Thanks so much, Bruce. I appreciate that opportunity and it was fun to have a conversation about it. I love this topic, so definitely. Yeah, thanks so much.