By Christine Hudson and Ronica Roth

Ronica and I care deeply about shaping organizational culture, as we’ve seen culture inspire our own and others’ engagement, creativity, success and joy.  And, conversely, a drastic negative culture change fairly early in my career brought me to tears on the way to work–every morning for a couple of months–before I understood it was the different culture that was making me miserable (and then found the right path to leave).

We recently led a workshop that took participants through a set of techniques we’ve found most helpful in reinforcing or redefining culture simply, gradually, and powerfully: by designing and facilitating meetings differently. 

We’ve facilitated meetings for hundreds of teams of various compositions, from executive teams to volunteer boards to scrum teams. This workshop reflects a few of the common patterns we’ve seen help meeting leaders and facilitators create rapid, powerful, visible culture change. 

Design with the desired culture in mind

The secret to great, culture-changing meetings is no secret: design with the experience in mind. Even as we design for a meeting’s functional outcomes—for the work of the meeting—we also consider what experience we want to take our meeting participants through. How will we reinforce the desired culture changes using activities, language, and modeling?

We wanted workshop participants to be inspired to change the culture through their upcoming meetings…and we specifically wanted to leverage habit change research to help them have the best chance of success, help them follow through with that inspiration. So we asked them to start with their desired culture change in mind…and ended the session asking them to choose a small win: To describe in detail a small change to move forward with in the next week, including the date and time of the meeting, and at what point in the meeting they would introduce the change.

Great meetings are culture-changing meetings

Most powerful changes to meetings and culture are simple to comprehend, but difficult to implement: It is difficult to change our habits and behaviors. It’s especially hard to change habits reinforced by the culture around us. So it’s key to pick something small and get others to practice with along with us. 

In our workshop we explored the foundation to great meetings, how a leader or facilitator might set up psychological safety for participation and inclusion with language, activities, and modeling.

We played with a variety of techniques that support culture change ranging from culture-reinforcing language in meeting purpose to icebreakers that don’t suck to how we expose and set meeting norms, welcome divergence, invite all voices…and finally, to how we provide improved clarity in decision making and how we close with claiming wins.

We took participants through practices for a longer, more divergent meeting–where brainstorming and decision-making often put us at our best and worst behaviors and so are wonderful opportunities to practice new cultural elements. However, many of the techniques we discussed are also applicable for shorter meetings–even stand-ups, which are great for regular, frequent practice. 

Before each of the exercises we gave a brief description of some of the practices we’ve seen be most effective. The material included a mix of meeting design elements—like the way you design a brainstorming activity—and facilitation techniques—like how you help a group safely name and address the elephants in the room.

Design with outcomes and outputs in mind

We asked workshop participants to choose one meeting that they run regularly and then throughout the workshop imagine how to adjust that meeting to serve the cultural goal (as well as its existing functional goal). By the end of the hour, each person had a handful of table-tested potential ideas in front of them for nudging culture change in their meetings:

  • Culture-reinforcing language updates to their meeting purpose 
  • 2-3 things to improve in the design and facilitation of the meeting opening–to improve context, clarity, and psychological safety
  • 1-2 seed working agreements to encourage desired behaviors reinforcing culture change
  • 2-3 “namings and reframings” of conflict in the meeting to match desired culture

We closed the meeting by asking each person to choose one small technique to start with, one small way to begin regularly practicing the culture change they care about. We can’t wait to hear how the practice goes! We believe they–and you–can begin to change your culture with how you show up every day, and especially in your meetings.