Book Notes
The Culture Code
Daniel Coyle

What a fan­tas­tic book! The Cul­ture Code bridges pow­er­ful sto­ry­telling and prac­ti­cal instruc­tion that pro­vides the guid­ance need­ed to cre­ate mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships, and ulti­mate­ly strong cul­ture with­in your team.

Why should design­ers read this book?

  • It will have a pos­i­tive impact on your com­mu­ni­ca­tion with oth­er teammates
  • It will give you fuel to do the dirty work in sup­port of some­thing greater
  • It shines a light on the invis­i­ble, but cru­cial inner work­ings of high­ly suc­cess­ful teams
  • The sto­ries shared are com­pelling, inspir­ing and useful.

I was sur­prised to learn that the study of suc­cess­ful teams is not new. There’s no mag­ic that makes teams suc­cess­ful, it’s hard work, but it’s doable. So how do high func­tion­ing teams like: the US Navy SEALS, Zap­pos, Pixar, and IDEO do it?

Strong cul­tures engage in three high lev­el activities:

1. Strong cul­tures build safe­ty
2. Strong cul­tures share vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty
3. Strong cul­tures have a clear, estab­lished, purpose.

1. Strong Cultures Build Safety

They respond to neg­a­tiv­i­ty and apa­thy, with pos­i­tiv­i­ty and con­struc­tive cre­ativ­i­ty. On these teams, the mem­bers are equals, and where the the goals of the team come before the indi­vid­ual. They are with­out ego. The safe­ty comes from a true, deep con­nec­tion to one anoth­er. This safe­ty cre­ates trust in one anoth­er. Real trust. 

They pos­sess three key qualities:

  • Ener­gy: They put invest­ment into social interaction
  • Indi­vid­u­al­iza­tion: They treat team­mates as unique and valued
  • Future Ori­en­ta­tion: They show sig­nals that their rela­tion­ship will continue.

Sandy Pent­land, a researcher at MIT came up with five fac­tors for what makes for high per­for­mance teams, they are:

Sandy Pentland’s Five Factors for Team Performance

  1. Bal­anced com­mu­ni­ca­tion: In meet­ing set­tings, every­one in the group talks/listens in rough­ly equal amounts, and keeps their con­tri­bu­tions short.
  2. High atten­tive­ness: Team mem­bers main­tain high lev­els of eye con­tact, and main­tain ener­gy with tone of voice, and gestures.
  3. Decen­tral­ized meet­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion: Mem­bers com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er direct­ly, and not through a cen­tral team leader.
  4. Decen­tral­ized back-chan­nel com­mu­ni­ca­tion: Team mem­bers car­ry out back-chan­nel, and side con­ver­sa­tions with­in the team.
  5. Diver­gent explo­ration: Mem­bers peri­od­i­cal­ly go off, explore and learn, and return, bring­ing new infor­ma­tion to the team. 

This safe­ty, and the belong­ing it cre­ates has many pos­i­tive effects, such as: team­mates work hard­er, have more ener­gy, have high­er intel­lec­tu­al per­for­mance, and have greater indi­vid­ual auton­o­my and control.

2. Share Vulnerability

In order to grow and improve, we must first be vul­ner­a­ble and open. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty gets thrown around a lot, and can be a bit of a buzz­word, but the way Coyle puts it is straight­for­ward and mean­ing­ful. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty means show­ing you have weak­ness, are imper­fect, and could use help. it means putting aside your inse­cu­ri­ties for the greater mis­sion of the team.

One of the most vul­ner­a­ble pro­fes­sions around is mprov. Stand­ing up on stage, com­ing up with mate­r­i­al on the spot, in front of a crowd, with no way to think ahead of how you are going to act. Ter­ri­fy­ing! Hav­ing been brought up on stage once to try it, it scared the absolute shit out of me.

In New York, there’s an improv group called UBC. UBC is one of the the most suc­cess­ful improv groups, and many of it’s alumae have become huge­ly suc­cess­ful come­di­ans. In improv, there’s an act called a “Harold” which is a very com­plex, long­form improv per­for­mance, that is very dif­fi­cult to get right. It was invent­ed by Del Close, and he cre­at­ed eleven com­mand­ments to approach the Harold with the right mind­set. They are:

Del Close’s 11 Commandments for the Harold

  1. You are all sup­port­ing actors
  2. Always check your impulses
  3. Nev­er enter a scene unless needed
  4. Save your fel­low actor, don’t wor­ry about the piece
  5. Work at the top of your brains at all times
  6. Nev­er under­es­ti­mate or con­de­scend the audience.
  7. No jokes
  8. Trust — Trust that your fel­low actors come through, trust them to sup­port you, and trust your­self if you lay some­thing heavy on them.
  9. Your prime respon­si­bil­i­ty is to support
  10. Avoid judge­ment, except in terms of what needs help, what can best fol­low, and how you can sup­port imag­i­na­tive­ly if your sup­port is called for.
  11. Lis­ten.

So much of this trans­lates to what makes a design­er great: being a team play­er, know­ing their bounds, being cre­ative and con­struc­tive when appro­pri­ate, mak­ing it about the work and not about the ego. 

So how can we all embrace vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty on our teams?

Lead with vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty: First make sure your lead­ers are vul­ner­a­ble. This will pro­vide a mod­el for oth­er team mem­bers to embrace.

Over com­mu­ni­cate expec­ta­tions of coop­er­a­tion: Make the way the team works clear, and embrace behav­iors that align with cooperation.

Deliv­er bad news in-per­son: Pro­vid­ing a dif­fi­cult mes­sage in per­son, makes it pos­si­ble to show through social cues that your mes­sage is being com­mu­ni­cat­ed out of care, and removes the pos­si­bil­i­ty of neg­a­tive assump­tions to build.

When form­ing new groups focus heav­i­ly on these two key moments: The first vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty a team mem­ber shows — embrace it, and the first dis­agree­ment the team has — focus on what’s being learned. 

How to grow vulnerability in the team

  • Inter­act in ways that make oth­ers feel supported
  • Take a help­ing, coop­er­a­tive approach
  • Occa­sion­al­ly ask ques­tions that gen­tly and con­struc­tive­ly chal­lenge assumptions
  • Make occa­sion­al sug­ges­tions to open alter­na­tive paths forward
  • Find dif­fer­ent ways to explore ten­sion, to get to the heart of the problem
  • Hold back from adding solu­tions, and only sug­gest when you have the com­plete picture.
  • Keep the oth­er per­son talking

Candor generating practices to use:

After action reports and Ret­ro­spec­tives: After a project, or effort is com­plete, reflect and review what the intend­ed out­comes were, vs. the actu­al out­comes. Iden­ti­fy what caused the actu­al out­come, and what would we change or keep the same if we were to begin again?

Before action reports: Ask: What are our intend­ed out­comes? What are the chal­lenges we antic­i­pate? What have we or oth­ers learned from sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions? How have we failed in solv­ing this before? What will make us suc­cess­ful this time?

3. Establish Purpose

To uni­fy the team, the pur­pose must res­onate with each and every team mem­ber. If it becomes a mes­sage that is repeat­ed, but no one tru­ly believes in, it will not be adopt­ed. When peo­ple believe in the pur­pose, all of their deci­sions are root­ed in it, and the right path for­ward becomes obvious. 

How to establish purpose:

1. Name and rank pri­or­i­ties for the group: In order to move towards a tar­get, team mem­bers must have high­er order pri­or­i­ties. If every­thing is impor­tant, noth­ing is important.

2. Be 10X as clear about your pri­or­i­ties as you think you need to be: Make a habit of repeat­ing pri­or­i­ties, and pro­vide team mem­bers with the oppor­tu­ni­ty to chal­lenge the pur­pose reg­u­lar­ly — this will pro­vide them with an oppor­tu­ni­ty to deeply under­stand what real­ly matters.

3. Fig­ure out what your group needs: The needs of a group depend on whether the teams goal is pro­fi­cien­cy, or creativity:

If the teams’ goal is pro­fi­cien­cy: Cre­at­ing machine like effi­cien­cy with exact accu­ra­cy — spot­light the goal, and show steps towards achiev­ing that goal.

If the teams’ goal is cre­ativ­i­ty: Empow­er them to go beyond what exists — to inno­vate. Pro­vide the team with sup­port, keen­ly attend to team dynam­ics, and defend the teams cre­ative auton­o­my. Make it safe to fail, and pro­vide sup­port­ive feed­back. Cel­e­brate huge­ly when groups take initiative.

4. Embrace catch phras­es: Catch phras­es, should offer clar­i­ty, be kept sim­ple, action ori­ent­ed, mem­o­rable, and fun,.

5. Mea­sure what real­ly mat­ters: Design sim­ple mea­sures which cre­ate aware­ness and align­ment towards the teams true objectives.

6. Use arti­facts: Sur­round shares spaced with mes­sag­ing that embod­ies your pur­pose and refines the sig­nal into “this is what matters”

7. Spot­light bar set­ting behav­ior: High­light excel­lence that embod­ies your mis­sion: e.g. for Pixar, their short films played before the fea­ture film are a way to high­light the impor­tance of excellence.

By build­ing safe­ty, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, and estab­lish­ing pur­pose, we can strength­en the teams we work on, and ulti­mate­ly make them more pow­er­ful, suc­cess­ful, and productive.

The Cul­ture Code gives so much that it’s impos­si­ble to tru­ly sum­ma­rize all of it here. Hats off to Daniel Coyle for the fan­tas­tic guid­ance, the amaz­ing sto­ries, and the thor­ough research.