Changing Meetings by Changing Culture

Excerpt from “Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team” by Ed Muzio (an Original, October 2018).

Imagine that you manage an organization that holds a lot of disorganized meetings—people getting together without clear agendas or disciplined structure. You decide that better agendas would help your own meetings. But you want to go further—you want to improve your part of the organization. So you’ve decided that your use of clear meeting agendas should be a culture-changing behavior. To succeed, your use of agendas will have to meet the four criteria for culture-changing behaviors.

First, it must be ascensive—it has to make things better! If you start creating and reading out verbose, complex agendas in your meetings and, in doing so, make them longer or overly restrictive, you’ll make little progress in creating culture change. On the other hand, if your new use of agendas makes your meetings shorter or more relevant or more accessible for people wanting to raise real concerns, that’s ascensive—that gives people good reason to consider trying your behavior for themselves.

Second, your new behavior has to be visible. If your agendas exist only in your mind, they might guide your thoughts as you run your meetings, but that behavior will be invisible to everyone else. Nobody can adopt behavior they can’t recognize. On the other hand, if you put what you’re doing on display in each meeting—“I’ve found it useful to use agendas, so here’s the one I’ve created”—you will have created a visible behavior. And people who can see what you’re doing have the option to try it themselves.

That leads to No. 3: Your use of agendas has to be duplicable. That means other people must be in a position to make use of it. If your meetings are populated by individual contributors who don’t run meetings themselves, it won’t matter how much they like your behavior, because they’ll have no context in which to duplicate it. But if the attendees in your meetings are managers with meetings of their own to run, your behavior becomes duplicable, because it will be applicable to their circumstances, as well as yours.

Finally, your new behavior must be feasible; the people around you must be able to duplicate it, if they want to try. They need the knowledge, skills, and abilities to do it themselves. They must either know how or learn how to write good agendas. Equally importantly, they need social permission to do it. They must believe that if they start using better agendas, their bosses won’t fire them, their employees won’t quit, and their spouses won’t leave them.

You can’t control all of these issues—especially spouses!—but you can influence many of them. You can ensure that your use of agendas is productive. You can be extra articulate in describing what you’re doing. You can practice your new behavior with people who can use it themselves. And you can even provide job aids and rewards to help others get started— especially since you’re the boss! It won’t be immediate, and it won’t be perfect, but if you succeed in making your new behavior ascensive, visible, duplicable, and feasible, you will have begun to change the culture.

Of course, this isn’t an approach that leads to a giant overnight change in one step. But then, no approach to improving culture leads to a giant overnight change in one step. Even when the president, CEO, or owner of the company opens a session with the entire management team by announcing that the company is to be different, starting right now—even when everyone in that room wants it to be different, starting right now—the company does not change at that moment. Culture change is always a gradual, local process. There are tricks to speeding it up and mistakes that slow it down, but “instant” is never an option. 

The good news is that improvement can start with you. Actually, if you’re a manager of managers, I might even argue that it should start with you. You understand what it means to Iterate, you’re better positioned than anyone to improve your part of the organization, and you’re in the perfect position to both require and model changes on your team. And since you link your part of the organization to the whole, you might even be able to do some role modeling with your peers and boss, too. 

Make a choice. Define an action. Do something. As soon as you do, be sure to congratulate yourself, because you’ll have taken the first step. And before long, you’ll start to see whether that step was useful or not. You’ll either get faster, more flexible and focused or you won’t. And either is fine because either result is informative. Either result sets you up to take the next most logical step—to determine the next action you can take that’s likely to help—the next thing you can do that’s ascensive, visible, duplicable, and feasible. And then you can do that, learn from it, and repeat.

It’s true: You’re never going to get your culture from where it is now to where you want it to be in a single step. 

But that’s OK.

You can Iterate.

Excerpt from “Iterate: Run a Fast, Flexible, Focused Management Team” by Ed Muzio (an Original, October 2018). Learn more at:

Ed Muzio’s mantra is “Higher Output, Lower Stress, Sustainable Growth.” He is CEO of Group Harmonics and author of “Make Work Great”and “Four Secrets to Liking Your Work,” both of which won Awards of Excellence from the International Society for Performance Improvement. Best known for his popular whiteboard video series, Muzio is a leader in the application of analytical models to management and organizational effectiveness, including whole-group intervention, simulation, facilitation, and instructional design. His analytical approach to human productivity has been featured in national and international media, including CBS News, Fox Business News, and the New York Post, and he has been a regular contributor to CBS,, and the Huffington Post.


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