Review of The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

In The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle explores and answers two primary questions:

  • Where does great culture come from?
  • How do you build and sustain it in your group – or strengthen it in a culture that needs fixing?

From his discovering journey visiting extraordinarily successful organizations—U.S. Navy’s SEALS Team Six, San Antonio Spurs, IDEAL Pixar, Union Square Hospitality and more—he concludes:

“While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

The doing of culture is synthesized in three critical skills.

  1. Build safety – “explores how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.”
  2. Share vulnerability—“explains how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.”
  3. Establish purpose—“tells how narratives create shared goals and values.”

Initially, the author previews how “each part of the book is structured like a tour: first we will explore how each skill works, and then we’ll go into the field to spend time with groups and leaders who use these methods every day. Each part will end with a collection of concrete suggestions on applying these skills to your group.”

While addressing big ideas, Daniel Coyle personalizes his narrative, describing how restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer, “is relaxed and alert but unhurried. His voice is steady, with a Midwestern earnestness that’s vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart.” Like the wisdom of characters played by that famed actor, Danny Meyer brings extraordinary insight, prioritization, and systematization to his work.

Meyer pushes “his leaders to seek opportunities to use and model the key behaviors. He began to treat his role as that of a culture broadcaster.” He explains: “You have priorities, whether you name them or not. If you want to grow, you’d better name them and you’d better name the behaviors that support the priorities.” Priorities in a Danny Meyer restaurant are 1) colleagues, 2) guests, 3) community, 4) suppliers; and 5) investors.

Informed by place-anchored values, from having grown up in St. Louis, his hiring strategy tilts towards people from the Midwest. While the wait staff might share the orientation of those drawn to New York for the excitement, edgy energy, opportunity, at the core they bring Midwestern goodness to their work, to their purpose of creating great experiences for their guests.

Modeling the best nonfiction writing, Coyle sprinkles his pages with side comments that provide another perspective, a contextual reference, a complementary insight that promotes reader engagement, thereby deepening message relevance.

For example, Cooper, the Navy SEALS’s “the best in creating great teams,” was attracted to the SEALS by a history teacher telling him, “SEALS are highly intelligent, copious readers.” This seemingly counterintuitive statement deepens readers’ engagement, for most perceive SEALS as excelling at physical confrontation, so the author’s positioning them as cognitively deep. The SEALS’ extraordinary cohesiveness is fundamental to their potent effectiveness, for SEALS epitomize the proposition that the shared experience of physical challenge builds cohesion. Tellingly, central to the SEALS’s effectiveness is a probing After Action Review, a truth-telling session led not by commanders but by enlisted men.

These reviews are structured around five core questions:

  1. “What were our intended results?
  2. “What were our actual results?
  3. “What caused our results?
  4. “What would we do the same next time?
  5. “What will we do differently?”

Daniel Coyle relates the fascinating research story about 4-person groups tasked to build the tallest possible structure using marshmallows, a yard each of string and transparent tape, and 20 uncooked spaghetti. Surprisingly counterintuitively, kindergarten teams dramatically and consistently outperformed groups of lawyers, CEOs, and business school students.

Business students prioritized what “psychologists call ‘status management’ they are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture . . . their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behaviors are riddled with inefficiency, hesitation and subtle, competition.” All of this distracts from the task at hand.

By contrast, “the kindergarteners’ actions appear disorganized on the surface, but when you view them as a single entity, their behaviors are efficient and effective. They are not competing for status. They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guides that toward effective solutions.”

As Coyle observes, “The kindergarteners succeed not because they are smarter, but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.” The Culture Code “is the story about how that works.”

San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s NBA’s team “ranks as the most successful team in American sports in the last two decades, winning five championships and a higher percentage of games than the New England Patriots, the St. Louis Cardinals, or any other storied franchise.” Gregg Popovich excels in creating an environment that facilitate his teams consistently, far more than any other NBA team winning games that “measured by their players’ skills, they had no business winning.”

“Popovich, sixty-eight, is a hard-core, old-school, unapologetic authoritarian, a steel-spined product of the Air Force Academy who values discipline above all. His disposition has been compared to that of a dyspeptic bulldog, and he possesses a temper that could be described as ‘volcanic’ with much of the lava being funneled at his star players.”

From observing the Spurs, “It’s not hard to figure out why Popovich’s teams win because the evidence is in plain view on the court. The Spurs consistently perform the thousand little unselfish behaviors—the extra pass, the alert defense, the tireless hustle—that puts the team’s interest above their own . . . What’s hard to figure out is how Popovich does it.”

Assistant coach Chip Engelland, explains, “A lot of coaches can yell or be nice, but what Pop does is different. He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death.”

Pop succinctly states his coaching philosophy essence, “We gotta to hug ’em and hold ’em.”

The Culture Code does not disappoint, as Coyle eloquently informs and illuminates the true meaning of “culturewhich means to care.

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