Rhythm: The Most Important Thing About Your Organization That You Don’t Understand

Organizational rhythms have a fundamental effect on how we tell our stories.

The saying goes that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The implicit values your team believes will decide whether your explicit plans are successful. But there is something that is even more implicit than culture—rhythm.

Rhythm is also known as tradition, the business cycle, or just deadlines. **Rhythm is not something defined by your company—it’s defined by the sector or industry in which you work.** It can take years or decades to get established, and it can take even longer to change.

Have you ever been on an awayday where everyone got really excited about a new form of storytelling, but afterwards it never went anywhere? Are you a great storytelling organization, but you’re struggling to find ways to tell your stories on platforms like social media? It could be that you’re finding it hard because you’re working against the implicit rhythms in your sector.

Rhythm is what we do after the awayday. It’s what we default to when we get back to our desks. Rhythm is the path of least resistance, like when you realize that the only actionable item at the end of a meeting is that someone needs to organize another meeting. 

If you work at a newspaper, your rhythm is the daily edition. If you’re an advertiser, it’s a campaign. If you work in an art gallery or museum, is the calendar of exhibitions. If you’re a publisher, it’s the big marketing moments before summer and Christmas. For advocacy groups, it’s the cycle of policy decisions and elections.

When I worked at the BBC, there were different rhythms in different departments. In the news department, it was all about producing the day’s TV news stories for the 1 o’clock, the 6 o’clock or the 10 o’clock. The Natural History Unit had a much longer rhythm to their storytelling, as making a show like Blue Planet would take five years from beginning to end. I ran a team that had to try and help these different departments deliver new ways to tell stories, and one of the hardest problems we faced was working with these wildly different rhythms. It meant we had to develop specific tactics and ways of working, as no two departments had the same storytelling rhythms.

But rhythms can be useful; they help organizations grow, and they help competing organizations develop sectors and markets together. But they make it hard to respond to changes in audience behaviour or understand changes in the wider world outside your sector.

Your audience might want to engage with your stories in an on-demand stream rather than a scheduled programme. They might want to dig into stories from your history, or collect and curate stories to publish themselves. These new behaviours will challenge they way you tell stories. Meanwhile, startups without these traditional rhythms will respond faster and get all the attention. Does this sound familiar? 

Rhythms also make it hard to collaborate or bring in new skills from outside your sector. New staff won’t understand why a project manager has set a deadline. A collaboration with a partner outside your sector will fail when you can’t both hit the same deadline. Does this ring any bells?

So what can you do to change your rhythm?

First of all, discover and define the rhythms in your organization. Ask teams to talk through their year, showing the points where they are most busy and pressured. Ask a project manager to walk you through a project, explaining why the milestones and deadlines are set the way they are.

If you’re collaborating on a story, ask your partner to walk you through their last project. Ask where the pressure points were, and what caused them. Look for the points where your rhythms will likely be in sync, and where they might clash.

Look for rhythms in the behavior of your audience. Look for unexpected spikes of traffic, conversations or activity around your stories. Reward your team for being curious about these new patterns of audience behavior, and encourage experimentation in the rhythms of your storytelling.

This will be hard. Rhythms are deeply embedded in our organizations, and we don’t spend enough time thinking about them. But they have a fundamental effect on how we tell our stories, and they are one of the biggest blocks to change. So, culture might eat strategy for breakfast, but perhaps rhythm is the clock that wakes us up in the first place.