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The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

  • Amazon
  • Challenged group of business students and group of kindergartners to build tallest possible structure using twenty pieces of spaghetti, yard of tape, yard of string, and marshmallow. Marshmallow had to end up on top
  • Kindergartners appear disorganized, but as single entity, behavior is efficient and effective, not competing for status, stand shoulder to shoulder, work energetically together. Move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. Experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guides them toward effective solutions. Succeed not because they’re smarter but because they work together in smarter way.
  • Skill 1: Build Safety—signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity
  • Skill 2: Share Vulnerability—habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation
  • Skill 3: Establish Purpose—narratives create shared goals and values

Safety

  • “Bad apple” experiment
    • Nick went from group to group being rude, lazy, etc. Brought each group’s performance down, except the one with Jonathan. Nick behaves like jerk and Jonathan reacts instantly with warmth, deflecting negativity and making potentially unstable situation feel solid and safe. Then pivots asks simple question that draws others out, listens intently, responds. Energy levels increase; people open up and share ideas, building chains of insight and cooperation that move group toward goal. Story of good apples is surprising because 1. We tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience, not on subtle behaviors and 2. Jonathan succeeds without taking any of actions we normally associate with strong leader, doesn’t take charge or tell anyone what to do, strategize, motivate, or lay out vision. Just creates conditions for others to perform.
    • Nick able to disrupt group chemistry through nonbelonging cues. Signaled to group—We are not safe—immediately causing group’s performance to fall apart. Jonathan, signaled safety, connecting individually, listened intently, and signaled importance of relationship. Wellspring of belonging cues.
  • Patterns of interaction and social connection for top teams,
    • 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.)
  • Experiment analyzed competition, entrepreneurs pitched ideas executives. Executives selected promising plans ranked for outside group of angel investors. Sociometers—tracking cues exchanged between presenter and audience while ignoring informational content—predicted rankings with near perfect accuracy. When angels viewed plans on paper—looking at informational content and ignoring social signals—they ranked very differently.
  • Pentland’s studies show team performance is driven by five measurable factors, ignoring individual skills associated with high-performing groups, replaced with behaviors normally considered trivial. Yet when it comes to predicting performance, nothing is more powerful.
    1. Everyone in group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
    2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, conversations and gestures energetic.
    3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with team leader.
    4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within team.
    5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside team, and bring information back to share.
  • Google’s Jeff Dean after recalling AdWords fix that had massive impact, “It was normal. That kind of thing happened all the time.” Google didn’t manage their status or worry about who was in charge. Small building produced high levels of proximity and face-to-face interaction. Page’s technique of igniting whole-group debates around solving tough problems sent powerful signal of identity and connection, as did wide-open Friday forums.
  • Overture (Google AdWords competitor), despite head start and billion-dollar war chest, handicapped by bureaucracy. Decision making involved innumerable meetings and discussions about technical, tactical, and strategic matters. Google didn’t win because it was smarter. It won because it was safer.
  • “I’m so sorry about the rain—transformed people’s behavior” prior to asking for to use stranger’s phone increased response rate by 422%. Unmistakable signal: This is a safe place to connect.
  • Small signal can have huge effect, but can’t just give cue once. Establish relationships, convey interest. Create narrative—you have to keep it going. Brains did not evolve to process safety logically. Obsessively on lookout for danger. When we sense a threat, amygdala pulls our alarm cord, setting off fight-or-flight, shrinks world to single question: What do I need to do to survive? When receiving belonging cue, amygdala builds and sustains social bonds. Transforms from guard dog into guide dog with single-minded goal: stay connected with your people.
  • Social brains light up when they receive steady accumulation of almost-invisible cues: We are close, we are safe, we share a future. Model for understanding how belonging works: as flame that needs to be continually fed by signals of safe connection.
  • General LeMay’s confidence was unbounded. One time he stepped into bomber with lit cigar. Crew member warned him that bomber might explode, he replied, “It wouldn’t dare.”
  • About Popovich from assistant coach Chip Engelland, “He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death.”
  • Misconception about highly successful cultures is they are happy, lighthearted. Mostly not case. They’re energized and engaged, but members oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together. Many moments of high-candor feedback, uncomfortable truth-telling, when they confront gap between where group is, and where it ought to be.
  • Stanford, Yale, and Columbia researchers discovered one form of feedback greatly boosted effort and performance, simple phrase. “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”. Powerful because they deliver burst of belonging cues.
    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.
  • (In restaurant after crushing loss in NBA Finals): Popovich takes sip of wine and deep breath, can see him get over his emotions and start focusing on what team needs. Bus pulls up, he stood and greeted every player as they came through the door. Popovich moved around room, connecting with each player. People said he behaved like father of a bride at wedding, taking time with everyone, thanking them, appreciating them. In moment that could have been filled with frustration, recrimination, anger, he filled their cups. “I remember watching him do that, and I couldn’t believe it,” Buford says. “By the end of the night, things felt almost normal. We were a team again. It’s the single greatest thing I’ve ever seen in sports, bar none.”
  • Hsieh of Zappos, “I probably say the word collision a thousand times a day, I’m doing this because the point isn’t just about counting them but about making a mindset shift that they’re what matters. When an idea becomes part of a language, it becomes part of the default way of thinking.”
  • Overcommunicate Your Listening: head tilted slightly forward, eyes unblinking, eyebrows arched up, bodies still, leaned toward speaker with intent, steady stream of affirmations—yes, uh-huh, gotcha. “Posture and expression are incredibly important, it’s the way we prove that we’re in sync with someone.” Avoid interruptions, smoothness of turn taking is powerful indicator of cohesive groups. “When you can show numbers that top salespeople hardly ever interrupt, and then rate them on that scale, you can deliver powerful message,“. Creative sessions, however, often contain bursts of interruptions. Key to draw distinction between those of mutual excitement and those rooted in lack of awareness and connection.
  • Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On—Especially If a Leader: Natural tendency to hide our weaknesses and appear competent. To create safety, exactly wrong move. Instead, open up, show you make mistakes, invite input with phrases like “This is just my two cents.” “Of course, I could be wrong here.” “What am I missing?” “What do you think?”
  • Embrace Messenger: Vital moment for creating safety is when group shares bad news or gives tough feedback. In these moments, important not simply to tolerate difficult news but embrace it.
  • Preview Future Connection: Sneak-previewing future relationships, making small but telling connections between now and vision of future.
  • Overdo Thank-Yous: Seems slightly over the top.
  • Painstaking in Hiring Process: Deciding who’s in and who’s out is most powerful signal any group sends, successful groups approach hiring accordingly.
  • Eliminate Bad Apples: Extremely low tolerance for bad apple behavior and, perhaps more important, skilled at naming those behaviors.
  • Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces: Obsessed with design as lever for cohesion and interaction. Create spaces that maximize collisions.
  • Make Sure Everyone Has Voice: Easy to talk about but hard to accomplish, successful groups use simple mechanisms that encourage, spotlight, and value full-group contribution. For example, many follow rule that no meeting can end without everyone sharing something.
  • Pick Up Trash Their: leaders do menial work, cleaning and tidying locker rooms—and along way vividly model team’s ethic of togetherness and teamwork.
  • Capitalize on Threshold Moments: When entering new group, brains decide quickly whether to connect, treat these as more important than any other. Don’t only happen on day one; happen every day. But pay attention to moments of arrival. Pause, take time, and acknowledge presence of new person, marking moment as special: We are together now.
  • Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback: separate into different processes, handle negatives through dialogue, first by asking if person wants feedback, then have learning-focused two-way conversation about needed growth. Positives through ultra-clear bursts of recognition and praise. Radiate delight when spotting behavior worth praising.
  • Embrace Fun: Laughter not just laughter; it’s most fundamental sign of safety and connection.
  • “If you ask for help ten times, then we’ll know it was good. If you try to do it all alone…”
  • From SEAL Team Six commander,
    • “One person telling others what to do is not reliable way to make good decisions. Create conditions where that doesn’t happen, where you develop hive mind. How do you develop ways to challenge each other, ask right questions, and never defer to authority? We’re trying to create leaders among leaders. And you can’t just tell people to do that. You have to create the conditions where they start to do it.”
    • Merely creating space for cooperation wasn’t enough; he had to generate series of unmistakable signals that tipped his men away from their natural tendencies and toward interdependence and cooperation. “Human nature is constantly working against us. You have to get around those barriers, and they never go away.” When giving opinion, careful to attach phrases that provided platform for someone to question him, like “Now let’s see if someone can poke holes in this” or “Tell me what’s wrong with this idea.”
    • “When you’re in urban environment, windows are bad. You stand in front of one, and you can get shot by a sniper and never know where it came from. So if you’re a new guy and you see me standing in front of a window in Fallujah, what are you going to say? Are you going to tell me to move my ass, or are you going to stand there quietly and let me get shot? When I ask new guys that question, they say, ‘I’ll tell you to move.’ So I tell them, ‘Well, that’s exactly how you should conduct yourself all the time around here, with every single decision.’
    • One of most useful tools is After-Action Review, truth-telling sessions immediately after missions . Team gathers to discuss and replay key decisions. No agendas or minutes kept. Goal is to create flat landscape without rank, where people can figure out what really happened and talk about mistakes—especially their own. “Looking for moment where people can say, ‘I screwed that up.’ In fact, I’d say those might be the most important four words any leader can say”
    • “Real courage is seeing truth and speaking truth to each other. People never want to be the person who says, ‘Wait a second, what’s really going on here?’ But inside the squadron, that is the culture, and that’s why we’re successful.”
  • Bell Labs administrators grew curious about reasons for their own remarkable success, wondered which scientists had generated most patents for their inventions, habit of regularly eating lunch with Harry Nyquist was thing in common, two important qualities
    • Warmth, made people feel cared for; “fatherly.”
    • Relentless curiosity, combined breadth and depth of knowledge with desire to seek connections. “Nyquist was full of ideas, full of questions,” Bell Labs engineer Chapin Cutler recalls. “He drew people out, got them thinking.”

Vulnerability

  • Building habits of group vulnerability like building muscle, takes time, repetition, willingness to feel pain in order to achieve gains.
  • Key points
    • Make Sure Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often
      • Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends leaders ask their people three questions
        1. What is one thing I do you’d like me to continue to do?
        2. What is one thing I don’t do frequently enough you think I should do more often?
        3. What can I do to make you more effective?
    • Overcommunicate Expectations
    • Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person
    • When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments: First vulnerability and first disagreement. These moments are doorways to two possible group paths: Are we about appearing strong or about exploring landscape together? Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together?
    • Listen Like Trampoline: Good listening is about more than nodding attentively; it’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discovery.
      • Most effective listeners do four things
        1. Interact in ways that make other person feel safe and supported
        2. Take helping, cooperative stance
        3. Occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions
        4. Make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths
    • In Conversation, Resist Temptation to Reflexively Add Value: Most important part of creating vulnerability often resides not in what you say but in what you do not say. Have willpower to forgo easy opportunities to offer solutions and make suggestions. Skilled listeners do not interrupt, understand it’s not about them. Keep other person talking.
    • Use Candor-Generating Practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Red Teaming (aka Retros)
    • Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty
      • Aim for candor—feedback that is smaller, targeted, less personal, less judgmental, and equally impactful
    • Embrace Discomfort
    • Align Language with Action: Highly cooperative groups use language to reinforce their interdependence. For example, navy pilots returning to aircraft carriers do not “land” but are “recovered.” IDEO doesn’t have “project managers”—it has “design community leaders.”, etc.
    • Build Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development
    • Use Flash Mentoring (aka pairing): One of best techniques seen for creating cooperation, exactly like traditional mentoring, except instead of months or years, it lasts few hours.
    • Make Leader Occasionally Disappear Single trait best SEAL teams shared, “The best teams tended to be the ones I wasn’t that involved with, especially when it came to training. They would disappear and not rely on me at all. They were better at figuring out what they needed to do themselves than I could ever be.”

Purpose

  • Rosenthal’s and Grant’s experiments, Johnson & Johnson’s Credo created high-purpose environment, linked present effort to meaningful future, used single story to orient motivation: This is why we work. Here is where you should put your energy.
  • Give good idea to mediocre team, and they’ll screw it up. Give mediocre idea to good team, and they’ll make it better. Goal needs to be to get team right, moving in right direction, get them to see where they are making mistakes and where they are succeeding
  • Catmull from Pixar: Hire people smarter than you. Fail early, fail often. Listen to everyone’s ideas. Face toward the problems. B-level work is bad for your soul. It’s more important to invest in good people than in good ideas. “For me, managing is a creative act. It’s problem solving, and I love doing that.”
  • Many successful cultures forged in moments of crisis, Pixar’s was Toy Story 2. Was it studio that did average work or that aimed for greatness? Successful last-minute push crystallized Pixar’s identity.
  • Key points
    • Name and Rank Priorities: small handful, in-group relationships at top, greatest project is building and sustaining group itself
    • Be Ten Times as Clear About Your Priorities as You Think You Should Be
    • Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where It Aims for Creativity
      • Proficiency: doing task same way, every time. Purpose here is like building vivid map: spotlight goal and provide crystal-clear directions, vivid, memorable rules of thumb (if X, then Y)
      • Creative: empowering group to do hard work of building something. Purpose here is like supplying expedition, provide support, fuel, tools, and serve as protective, empowering presence.
    • Embrace Use of Catchphrases: “Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “Talk less, do more” (IDEO), “Work hard, be nice” (KIPP)
    • Measure What Really Matters
    • Use Artifacts
    • Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors: Challenge of purpose is translating abstract ideas into concrete terms. One way is spotlighting single task and using it to define identity, set expectations

Rocky Warren's blog. Principal Architect, Tech Lead, Product Manager. I do other stuff too.

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