The Culture Code (review)

This book by Daniel Coyle is about the question: How to make teams effective? The book suggests three ways: You build safety, share vulnerability, and establish purpose. The first two seem to be the same to me though.

Build Safety and Share Vulnerability

This is the same insight I learned from Google studies that psychological safety is a core factor.

Naturally, the designated manager of a team has the most power. Managers can easily destroy any feeling of safety quickly. Building it up again takes a lot more work. It implies that the leader must show vulnerability first.

Group cooperation is created by small, frequently repeated moments of vulnerability. Of these non carries more power than the moment when a leader signals vulnerability. As Dave Cooper says, I screwed that up are the most important words any leader can say.

This is counter-intuitive because if you think of a strong leader, you might rather think of a fierce William Wallace crying for freedom in Braveheart or an enigmatic Steve Jobs enchanting his keynote listeners. There are counter examples though.

R. C. Buford, general manager of the San Antonio Spurs, is one of the most successful executives in the history of sports. But if you watch him operate, you might mistake him for an assistant.

As a leader, if you want to do it right, the book has practical suggestions like listening well, eat together, criticise in private, praise in public, embrace messengers of bad news, overdo thank-yous, and hire carefully.

Deciding who's in and who's out is the most powerful signal any group sends, and successful groups approach their hiring accordingly.

Psychological safety is not just about the leader though. It also needs work between each team member. The book shows that effective teams have special meetings for honest feedback: After Action Reviews at the SEALs, BrainTrusts at Pixar, and Red Teaming by military organizations. Such meetings are also a chance to assess the psychological safety in a group.

  1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
  2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.

While the book has plenty of more practical advice, here is one more. When forming a new group, focus on two critical moments: the first vulnerability and the first disagreement.

These moments are doorways to two possible group paths: Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together? Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together? [...] What happens in that moment helps set the pattern for everything that follows.

Establish Purpose

Just because team members are comfortable with each other does not mean the team is effective. It also needs to have a clear purpose so everybody understands where the journey should go. In general, executive overestimate how clear the priorities are.

A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company's top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked the employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so.

Priorities and purpose must be communicated again and again. You steer the ship gently and consistently. Repeat the signals often.

The value of those signals is not in their information but in the fact that they orient the team to the task and to one another. What seems like repetition is, in fact, navigation.

One way to deliver such guidance are cheesy catchphrases:

When you look at successful groups, a lot of their internal language features catchphrases that often sound obvious, rah-rah, or corny. [...] Their occasionally cheesy obviousness is not a bug–it's a feature. Their clarity, grating to the outsider's ear, is precisely what helps them function.

The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright

If you prefer to focus it in a single document instead of a bouquet of catchphrases, maybe write down a credo instead. This has helped pharma company to react swiftly and recall Tylenol at the cost of $100 million.

"We had to make hundreds of decisions on the fly; hundreds of people made thousands of decisions," Burke said afterward. [...]

On the surface, the story of the Tylenol crisis is about a large group responding to disaster with extraordinary cohesion and focus. But beneath that story lies a curious fact: The key to Johnson & Johnson's extraordinary behavior can be located in a mundane one-page document. The 311 words of the Credo oriented the thinking and behavior of thousands of people as they navigated a complex landscape of choices.

Who should read the book?

If you manage a team and want it to be effective, this book might be the best overall introduction. It provides references to scientific evidence, so the foundations are solid. It tells engaging stories, so it is easy to read and motivating. Looking at my notes this book might be the one which generated the most. There is a lot more which is not mention in this review.

The classic Peopleware has a similar topic but is not as actionable. Since it is also more outdated, I would recommend to read The Culture Code first.

If you want to change something about your team, read Switch as a followup.

Grow an effective team through building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.