PM Articles > Geof Lory > Rules, Routines, and Rituals

Rules, Routines, and Rituals

by Geof Lory

Newcomers to Agile and organizations transitioning to Agile often struggle with what they perceive as a lack of structure. Used to working within a more defined, traditional project management approach, Agile can feel chaotic by comparison. To deal with the discomfort of this contrast in the early stages of their journey, clients often ask "If there aren't a bunch of processes, can we at least get a few rules to live by?" This usually brings a wry smile to my face. I understand the nature of the question, but I can't help noticing the irony.

I'm not really a rules guy, even though I grew up in a highly structured environment. As part of the baby boomer generation, I was inspired to challenge the status quo. Perhaps that is one reason Agile appeals to me so much. But the lack of heavy process in Agile should not be perceived as chaotic or without structure. There is plenty of structure in Agile; it just looks different. So, to answer their question, I start a conversation around rules, routines, and rituals.

Rules -- or their legal equivalent, laws -- are developed to invoke a sense of order, common behavior, and safety for a group of people. They are enforced through external governance and there are consequences associated with breaking them. But rules are not the real structure of the group; they are only the veneer. Rules are the hardened surface or institutionalization of what really matters, which is the underlying reason the rule exists. I'm not implying that rules are bad, but they can be inflexible and lack situational sensitivity.

Teams may establish rules that help govern their order and structure, but Agile itself, as a framework, doesn't have any universal rules. Agile teams are allowed to self-organize and establish their own individual rules based on the characteristics of their team and project at a point in time. Furthermore, since Agile methods work best in high-change and uncertain environments, and acknowledging that team needs evolve over time, Agile assumes any rules are temporary and should be regularly reviewed for fit and value.

Instead of rules, Agile employs rituals and routines to create a familiar cadence for maximizing productivity.

Instead of rules, Agile employs rituals and routines to create a familiar cadence for maximizing productivity.

A routine is a series of repeatable habits that allows you to go somewhat on autopilot and still accomplish your goals. Routines are a set of self-imposed rules that produce an outcome we can count on. A good routine can actually be freeing. No need for constant decision-making about what's coming next or what you should do. Just follow the routine. The routine is designed to automatically accomplish or guarantee the prescribed outcome. Routines are used by professionals everywhere, from pilots to doctors, police to project managers. You probably have your own routines that help you manage the complexity of your everyday life. There is comfort in routine.

But routines by themselves hold no special meaning. They only serve a function. Rituals, on the other hand, are routines with meaning, maintained by internal motivation and purpose. They are performed as much for their symbolic and emotional value as for their practical value. We perform a ritual because the act in itself has meaning and value. Rituals should remind us of what is important to us. They assist in the formation of community and trust between people. Rituals are about paying attention, even adding an element of sacredness.

Agile routines and rituals provide a high-level, flexible structure for the socialization of culturally acceptable behavior. When implementing Agile, establishing rituals is especially important. Agile rituals provide structure through familiarity that guides behavior and supports team development. Teams need both rituals and routines to maintain order and be efficient.

When a team or organization is first introduced to Agile, rituals are modeled and practiced long before they become part of the fabric of the culture. Often these rituals run counter to the existing culture and are prematurely modified or randomly applied, defeating the true purpose of the ritual. The rituals of Agile help a team establish new behavior patterns, so it is usually necessary to be a bit stricter about enforcing rituals when a team is first starting out with a new method. Once the team has had some practice with Agile rituals and understands their underlying value, it then becomes more important to consider whether or not the team is practicing in the spirit of Agile values, regardless of the specifics of the practices themselves.

Rituals are most useful when they help a team do the right things for the right reasons. Understanding the reason is necessary to keep the conversation from focusing on following the rules of the ritual rather than its value. We get into trouble when we cross the line from purpose-driven to dogmatic and the ritual becomes just a set of rigid rules.

Simple and easily implemented rituals are one of the reasons most organizations start their Agile transformation using the Scrum methodology. The basic Scrum rituals of sprint planning, daily stand-ups, reviews, and retrospectives create the cyclical cadence that helps develop a rhythm while changing to the Agile mindset. Over time, the rituals take on increased socioemotional significance as well as practical value, and the team sustains them for their value, not because they are rules.

When my daughters were young we had many household and family rituals. My favorite one was Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner attendance was an expectation for the whole family. Everyone had to be there because that's when we did our weekly planning, review, and retrospective. We would always start the dinner with a brief ceremony (a ritual within a ritual) of holding hands and expressing gratitude not just for the food we were going to share, but also for something special that happened in the past week. Then the dinner and conversations started.

As the girls got older and the Sunday ritual took on more meaning, the conversations did too. Discussions turned from TV programs to friends, school, car, money, college, boys, you name it. Nothing was really off limits because they were safe within the ritual. When they were young we had to "make" them be home for Sunday dinner, but as they got older it became something they looked forward to. Even today, with both of them out of the house, most of the times we get together are for a Sunday dinner.

When starting out on your Agile journey some of the rituals may feel contrived or irrelevant and you may be tempted to modify or forgo them completely. I highly encourage you to stick to the routine of the rituals. Make them a non-negotiable part of the team and project. As the value and purpose of the Agile rituals become commonly understood, the specific ceremonies of any ritual can evolve with the needs of the team. At that point the ritual has become self-sustaining.

Those are my thoughts on this summer Sunday afternoon. Now it is time to fire up the grill and start dinner. The girls should be stopping by any time. I'm looking forward to our Sunday ritual together.

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