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.
- 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:
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
- Balanced communication: In meeting settings, everyone in the group talks/listens in roughly equal amounts, and keeps their contributions short.
- High attentiveness: Team members maintain high levels of eye contact, and maintain energy with tone of voice, and gestures.
- Decentralized meeting communication: Members communicate with each other directly, and not through a central team leader.
- Decentralized back-channel communication: Team members carry out back-channel, and side conversations within the team.
- 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
- You are all supporting actors
- Always check your impulses
- Never enter a scene unless needed
- Save your fellow actor, don’t worry about the piece
- Work at the top of your brains at all times
- Never underestimate or condescend the audience.
- No jokes
- Trust — Trust that your fellow actors come through, trust them to support you, and trust yourself if you lay something heavy on them.
- Your prime responsibility is to support
- 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.
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.