Jorge Manrubia

April 30, 2022



Ceremony at work is those self-imposed rituals people follow to get things done. Too much, and it becomes a burden. Too little, and it's chaos.

Ceremony serves two purposes: assessment and communication. Assessment is about making sure you are working on the right problems at any given moment; communication is about getting everyone on the same page while doing it. Without the right amount of ceremony, the odds are that people won't do a great job, won't aim for the correct targets or both at the same time.

For the individual contributor in me, ceremony is a necessary evil. I don't love it when I am working, but, at the same time, I find its impact fascinating, and I appreciate its importance. What is the optimal amount of ceremony? That's the million-dollar question, and I don't have a clue. I do believe the correct answer has to be tied to experimentation, as each organization is unique. There is the size factor: the bigger a company is, the more ceremony it needs, but even companies of the same size present profound differences in approaching work. Thus, any attempt to implement ceremony that is not empirical has a high risk of failure. This means: experiencing problems, analyzing causes, tweaking ceremony, and evaluating how that went.

Not every complex problem offers the chance to apply an iterative approach, but processes and rituals do. Nothing is more demoralizing than the wrong ceremony nobody understands, but that can't be questioned: that's organizational gravity of the worst kind. In the same way, not trying a good idea just because it's not part of the current process does not make sense either. This is not a novel take — check the last principle in the agile manifesto — but I wonder how many organizations implement this mindset in practice.

I have worked for two very successful software product companies, and both dearly embraced this tenet. A common thought you hear from people who join Basecamp is appreciating the lack of interruptions. This is not a coincidence but the result of years of process-iteration around a core value. It implies a process with several rituals, a strong culture on how to approach work, and a product perfectly tailored to support it all, so not saying this is simple, but the principle behind is: a culture of self-evaluation and questioning¹.

Whatever your current ceremony is, be open to iterate it.

¹ If you are curious about Basecamp ceremony, this is a fantastic starting point.
Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

About Jorge Manrubia

A programmer who writes about software development and many other topics. I work at 37signals.