The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle – My Six Lessons and Takeaways

Culture CodeWe presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance in the same way we presume two plus two will combine to produce four. …We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.
Daniel Coyle, The Culture Code

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Culture change…

Can you think of a more difficult task for an organization?

An organization works in a certain way.  It is set up with a particular kind of organizational structure.  Someone, from the top down (usually) imposes that way for working on everyone in the organization.  And then, it gets set in its ways.

I recently heard a consultant use this word in a different context, so I will steal it for here – the culture becomes a “SALY” culture very quickly.  SALY – Same As Last Year.

But, there is a good chance that last year’s culture worked okay for last year, but not so well for this year, and definitely will not work so well for next year.

So, the culture has to change.

The book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle is all about the real world of culture and culture change.  I presented my synopsis of this book at the August First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.

As I always do, I asked at the beginning:

Why is this book worth is worth our time?  I gave three reasons:

#1 – Culture is tangible, seen especially in the ways group members work within their groups.  This book helps us understand this.
#2 – Listening is at the heart of effective group interaction.  This books explains why this is so.
#3 – It’s not enough just to be told to listen.  We have to know how to listen. This book is filled with specifics on what constitutes good listening skills.

Like nearly all good books these days, this book is filled with really, really good stories.  In this book, we learn about Coop and the Navy SEALs team selected to take down Osama Bin Laden.  The training included Coop standing up to his superior officer, three times, losing that battle each time, and then preparing for the worst (a crashed stealth helicopter). And, by the way, the worst happened in the actual mission, and when it did, the SEAL Team was ready!

And we learn about the obsession that Tony Shieh and Gregg Popovich both have with the physical interaction space for the people that make up their circle.  In both cases, the billionaire and this head coach moved furniture around to better facilitate “collisions” and interactions.  These, and others, are really good, and important stories.

Here are a few key excerpts (quotes)  from the book:

Close physical proximity, often in circles • Profuse amounts of eye contact • Physical touch (handshakes, fist bumps, hugs) • Lots of short, energetic exchanges (no long speeches) • High levels of mixing; everyone talks to everyone • Few interruptions • Lots of questions • Intensive, active listening • Humor, laughter • Small, attentive courtesies (thank-yous, opening doors, etc.) 

…I found that spending time inside these groups was almost physically addictive.

Google didn’t win because it was smarter. It won because it was safer.

This idea—that belonging needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced—is worth dwelling on for a moment. 

One misconception about highly successful cultures is that they are happy, lighthearted places. This is mostly not the case. They are energized and engaged, but at their core their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. …1. You are part of this group. 2. This group is special; we have high standards here. 3. I believe you can reach those standards.

“To create safety, leaders need to actively invite input.” …“You know the phrase ‘Don’t shoot the messenger’?” Edmondson says. “In fact, it’s not enough to not shoot them. You have to hug the messenger and let them know how much you need that feedback. That way you can be sure that they feel safe enough to tell you the truth next time.” 

The groups I studied had extremely low tolerance for bad apple behavior and, perhaps more important, were skilled at naming those behaviors. …New Zealand All-Blacks; “No Dickheads.” It’s simple, and that’s why it’s effective.

“SEALs are highly intelligent, copious readers.”

Talking is really complicated, because you’re thinking and planning what you’re going to say, and you tend to get stuck in your own head. But not when you’re listening. … Halfway through our conversation, Givechi asked me about this book’s title and subtitle. I told her, and she paused—a long, meaningful pause. Then she asked, “Does that subtitle really work?” A few minutes later, after a few back-and-forths, this book had a new and improved subtitle. I’m not certain if I suggested the change or if she did. As Givechi would say, we surfaced it together.

Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they’ll find a way to screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a good team, and they’ll find a way to make it better. The goal needs to be to get the team right, get them moving in the right direction, and get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding.”

Here is a way to think about this book:  Let’s start with a question, which might be the oldest question of all: Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?  This book leads us toward answers to these questions.

He builds the book around three key skills:
• Skill 1—Build Safety—explores how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.
• Skill 2—Share Vulnerability—explains how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.
• Skill 3—Establish Purpose—tells how narratives create shared goals and values.

One really interesting insight is this one:  Keep people close together – literally, physically, close together.  Pay attention to the Allen Curve: the story of desk proximity, and how this relates to the larger number of innovations —proximity functions as a kind of connective drug. Get close, and our tendency to connect lights up.

And here are my six lessons and takeaways:

#1 – So, the obvious – how you interact and work with others is everythingrelated to success.
#2 – Work closer (physically closer) to people that you need to interact with.
#3 – Overdo thank-yous. Seriously, overdo them.
#4 – Practice the “what could go wrong” drills. Over and over again.
#5 – Be a fanatic about the design of the space for interaction.
#6 – Practice radical candor (cf. Kim Scott) – be vulnerable; acknowledge screw ups; be contrite;  praise quite directly. And then (and, only then. But, yes, then…) get in the face about what needs to be changed.

Is this THE book on culture and culture change?  I’m not sure there is one “THE” book on this incredibly important subject.  But this one deserves a spot near the top of the stack for books dealing with this issue.

As I said, changing an organizational culture is not an easy task.  This book offers some valuable clarity on how to work on such a task.


My synopsis of this book will be available soon at the newest additions tab for our synopses.  Each synopsis comes with my multi-page, comprehensive handout, and the audio recording of my presentation from the First Friday Book Synopsis in Dallas.  We have many other synopses, for many other terrific books, available.

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