What I learned from Check-In Rituals

A few years ago, I was in Miami, Florida, on a business trip.  It was a first, in-person meeting, for the larger team. And it was then that I first heard of a check-in ritual before and after meetings.  It would be safe to say that what I learned then changed my view of meetings.

When I did my first check-in, I was unsure and even a little embarrassed. It was odd and felt unnecessary. Surely, everybody knew the purpose of our meeting and what we aimed to accomplish. But when I finished my check-in, I felt more present than I did before. And oddly enough, I experienced comfort even amidst the discomfort I still felt. Wait. Did I say comfort? Yes! Even relief. It was a powerful, first experience of this ritual. I will always be grateful for Pamela Mattson and the Axialent team for helping me break down these 3 questions:

1. What is my purpose in this meeting? How am I feeling? 

We spend so many hours of our lives in meetings. So, is it even necessary to ask this question? Don’t meetings come with an agenda already? Why do we have to “waste” precious time asking everybody to respond to this question? The insight I found was surprisingly simple. When I was asked this question, I became conscious and present. It allowed me to quieten the inner chatter. It also gave me permission to talk about my fatigue and jet-lag. I had been in 3 time zones in 3 weeks. And I had just arrived in Miami after a red-eye from Seattle. When I shared how excited I was to be there and also a little bit tired from my travel, I felt no judgment, only acknowledgement. With team members from New Zealand, England, Argentina, the US East Coast, West Coast, and of course, India, it became a shared inconvenience. And somehow, ‘finishing, unfinished business’ allowed me to become more conscious, present, and reconnected to our purpose that day. I felt like my brain was on fire and I was ready to jump right in – head, heart, and gut.

2. What do I want to accomplish? Why is this important to me?

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Our meeting included execs, consultants, and coaches. Each one of us brought value to the table with our collective wisdom and experience. And yet, this was an important question to be asked. This was no time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight. It was an opportunity to articulate what we wanted to accomplish, both individually and collectively as a team. It was also an opportunity for the leader to assess alignment. Did we have a shared understanding of goals and what excellence meant, in this project?

While it is a gift to work with incredibly, talented teams, the challenge is that there are strong opinions and passion around topics, ideas, and decisions. And the captain has to constantly steer the ship without ever losing sight of our True North. Our team was no exception. So how can we manage the tension between ambition and alignment? How can we stay focused and keep moving forward?  I truly believe it is possible. I call it my 70-100 Principle which I define thus:

We may not always be 100% in agreement on all issues. But if we’re 70% in consensus and 100% in commitment to move forward, it’s a good place to start.

3. What do I want to share?

What does a typical work-day look like for most of us? Back-to-back meetings combined with notifications and alerts on our smart phones and additional devices. From social media to 1:1 chat to virtual rooms, and team space conversations, collaborations continue all the time. The irony is that the very thing we enabled to help us, can sometimes come in the way of our full presence, focus, and attention! But a check-in process helps reduce those distractions, to a great extent.

In test cricket for example, the person batting takes guard from time to time. This is to ensure their stance is perfectly balanced to face the next delivery from the bowler. Ritualistically, they are marking territory. Psychologically, they are clearing their minds and starting over again. A check-in is no different. It helps us remember why we are there, what we wish to accomplish, and what is the important context or information we wish to share.

Expanding Check-In Rituals

From being deliberate and intentional before and after meetings to managing weekly priorities, I’ve learned to be more disciplined because of check-ins. At Cisco, we have the infrastructure that makes this happen! Consistently. Week-on-week. I have the opportunity to check-in and reflect on which activities I loved and loathed the past week and plan my priorities for the next week. What a great way to pause, take guard, re-set, and move on!

Finally…What I learned from Fred Kofman 

Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness. Compassion without wisdom is folly.

As I watched the Wisdom 2.0 2015 edition with Fred Kofman and Jeff Weiner, here’s what stood out for me from what Fred shared on how people define their jobs:

“…Most people will say: “my job is to optimize the sub-system that I’m in charge of.” But the way to optimize the system is to sub-optimize the sub-system. This may sound like a mathematical tongue twister but it really is a problem of economics and mindfulness. We all experience reality as the field that is closest to us. We’re trying to do our best in that limited space, which creates tremendous problems for the larger system. So expanding consciousness and understanding that what I’m here to do is to contribute to the achievement of a noble mission that brings us all together radically changes how you think of your job, how you do your job, how you connect to people, and how you resolve conflicts…”

I cannot think of a more articulate and pragmatic value statement of what check-in rituals can do for leaders and teams. At the very core of a check-in ritual is to become fully present and aware in a way that allows me to contribute to the achievement of a noble mission that brings us all together, as a winning team. 

So the next time you update your Facebook status by letting friends know which airport, city, or hotel you’ve checked-in to, consider expanding that ritual to meetings, weekly priorities, and team sessions. You might be pleasantly surprised to see how your team’s presence and engagement begins to soar, in addition to your own!

Anitha Aswath is an HR Consultant and Strengths Coach of Leader Success in the Leadership and Team Intelligence Practice Area at Cisco. She has the unique privilege of meeting Cisco clients from all over the world to serve, teach, and enable the success of their teams.


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