[review] The Culture Code


I remember I watched this TED talk by Margaret Heffernan about experiment around chicken flock. The researcher compare 2 chicken flocks and found out that the most productive flock is not the one which consist of superior breed, but rather those who are just selected randomly. But why? Turns out, good team has less thing to do with skill, but more about the social cohesion between the team member. Now the book that I just read address the reason behind the same question from a culture perspective.

I was introduced to this book after a colleage, Emma Irwin, ask in our team channel if anyone wanted to read this book along with her. Emma is driving the Diversity & Inclusion work in Mozilla. And if you happened to be lucky and have worked with her in the past, you won’t find it hard why I follow her recommendation blindly. I couldn’t be more thankful for her because this book is super resourceful.

The culture code by Daniel Coyle is trying to address the old question of Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?. People might think that we need to hire the best people to make the best team. But just like the chicken flock experiment, this book will answer why hire the best people is not enough. We need to create the right culture for the team to be more successful.

The author spent 4 years visiting and researching 8 of the world’s most successful groups and found out that their cultures created by some specific set of skills. Those 3 skill sets, including:

  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

Culture from the Latin cultus, which means care.

But if I can summarize the message of this book, that would be that we need to care about people in our team. As you can see, the first 2 points are mostly focus on individuals, and only on the third point, the broader goal of the team is included. Because as Heffernan points out: “Companies don’t have ideas. Only people do.”

Build safety

Build safety means that we need to create a safe environment where everyone in our team feel safe to contribute. Coyle said that we need to create signal of connections to generate bonds of belonging and identity.

By the end of the first chapter, the author mention some ideas to build safety in our team. Here are some of them:

  • Overcommunicate your listening & overdo thank-yous
    Member in a sucessfull team tend to be a good listener & say a lot of thank-yous. Thank yous are not only expression of gratitude; they’re crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.

    To be an effective listeners, the author said that we need to behave like trampolines: they are absorbing what the other person gives, supporting them, and adding energy to help the conversation gain velocity and altitude. It’s also include avoid interuptions.

  • Spotlight your fallibility early on - especially if you’re a leader

    It’s hard for people not to answer a genuine question from a leader who asks for their opinion or their help.

    Vulnerability boost team’s willingness to cooperate. Especially when it comes from a leader. It’s like an invitation to create a deeper connection because it sparks a response in the listener: How can I help?

  • Embrace the messanger
    It may be hard to hear difficult news/feedback, but it’s even harder to express honesty and start the difficult talk. We need to embrace the messanger and let them know how much we need to hear that feedback.
  • Eliminate the bad apples
    The initial fintering process is important to avoid bad apples ruin the group. But, if it’s hard to spot the bad apples early on, so we also need to have zero-tolerance over toxic behaviour.
  • Preview future connection
    It’s important to draw connection between now and a vision of the future. It can be hard to be excited if we don’t know where we’re going.
  • Make sure everyone has a voice & embrace fun
    Fun is the most fundamental sign of safety and connection.
  • Pick up trash
    This is especially important for the team leader. When people see their leader possess a muscular humility - a mindset of seeking simple ways to serve the group, people will model the team’s ethic of togetherness & team work. It maybe subtle but it send a larger signal: We are all in this together.
  • Capitalize on threshold moments
    It’s really important to send belonging cues in the initial period when people just join the team. It’s important to pause, take time, and acknowledge the presence of the new person, marking the moment as special and send a signal that: We are together now.

Share vulnerability

This section explain how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation. But being vulnerable is hard because it requires people to expose their pain & weakneses. For that, the author tell a story about United Airline flight 232 crash. During the flight, there was a loud explosion from the plane’s tail. In such an emergency situation, a passanger named Denny Fitch, who turned out to be a pilot trainer told a flight attendant of his willingness to help the cocpit crew. While in the cockpit, Fitch begin with a simple question “Tell me what you want and I’ll help you”.

The question, inspire the captain to open up and share his vulnerability. In the end, they managed to land the plan with 185 of 296 passengers survived. The investigator tried to replicate the flight 232 condition in a simulator as part of the investigation for 28 times, but the plane end up crashed every single time. Now we see how vulnerability is needed because it tends to spark cooperation and trust.

Some are concrete ideas for team to embrace vulnerability from the book:

  • Make sure the leader is vulnerable first and often
    I screw that up - are the most important words leader can say.
  • Deliver the negative stuff in person
    It’s really important to deliver negative feedback in person to create clarity and avoid misunderstandings.
  • When forming new groups, focus on two critical moments
    The first vulnerability and the first disagreement are doorways to two possible group path: Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together?
  • In conversation, resist the temptaion to reflexively add value
    The most important part of creating vulnerability often resides not in what you say but in what you do not say.
  • Use candor-generating practive like AAR (After Action Review), BrainTrusts, and red teaming
    The 3 methods generate the same underlying action: to build the habit of opening up vulnerabilities so that the group can better understand what works, what doesn’t work, and how to get better.
    5 questions for After Action Review (AAR):
    • What were our intended results?
    • What were our actual results?
    • What caused our results?
    • What will we do the same next time?
    • What will we do differently?
  • Aim for candor, but avoid brutal honesty
    Avoid giving sandwich feedback. In other words, avoid sugar coating feedback. Embrace the discomfort by delivering the negative feedback through dialouge. The key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building. But at the same time, we also need to radiate delight when spot a behaviour worth praising.
  • Build a wall between performance review and professional development
    Performance evaluation tends to be a high-risk, inevitably judgemental interaction. While development on the other hand, is about identitfying strengths and providing support and opportunities for growth.
  • Make the leader occasionally disappear
    By doing this, team will be better at figuring out what they needed to do themselves.

Establish purpose

This is where the fundamental of the team lies. To create bond inside the team, we need to have narratives around shared goals & values of our team. In my current team (Open Innovation), the term Open by design is repeated over and over again. This may sounds cheesy, but it’s important to amplify this phrase to remind the team member of what we’re going.

And as usual, the author also mention some actionable ideas to establish purpose inside the team, including:

  • Name and rank your priorities
    Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities and many, not coincidentally, end up placing their in-group relationships -how they treat one another- at the top of the list.
  • Be ten times as clear about your priorities as you think you should be
    Encourage people to grapple with the big questions: What are we about? Where are we headed?
  • Figure out where your group aims for proficiency and where it aims for creativity
    Most groups consist of combination of these two skill types. They key is to clearly identify these areas and tailor leadership accordingly.
    Skills of proficiency are about doing a task the same way, every single time. Building purpose to perform these skills is like building a vivid map: you want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way.
    But creative skills, on the other hand, are about empowering a group to do the hard work of building something that has never existed before. Generating purpose in these areas is like supplying an expedition: you need to provide support, fuel, and tools that empowers the team doing the work.
  • Embrace the use of catchphrases
    Although it may sounds obvious, or corny, but jargons or catchphrases are like a crisp nudges in the direction the group wants to go. The author said that the trick is to keep it simple, action-oriented, and forthright.
  • Measure what really matters
    It may require more effort to set a different metric than what’s commonly used. But it’s really important in order to measure what trully matters to our team.
  • Focus on bar-setting behaviours
    One challenge of building purpose is to translate abstract ideas (values, mission) into concrete terms. One way to do this is by spotlighting a single task and using it to define their identity and set the bar for their expectations.