Culture Code

Coyle, Daniel. (2018). The Culture Code. New York: Bantam Books

One of the reasons I recommend this book is that it includes many other sources, about learning cultures, e.g. Pixar, Google, Navy SEALS, Schools, etc. My confession up front.  There are so many meaningful concepts in this book I cannot possibly include everything in a short summary. Okay, this is the longest summary I have done.  Sorry but this  book is really good.

Question: ‘Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?’

Peter Skillman he assembled a series of four-person groups at Stanford, the University of California, the University of Tokyo, and a few other places. He challenged each group to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:

  • twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • one yard of transparent tape
  • one yard of string
  • one standard-size marshmallow

The contest had one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top.

The results – “kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.” Teams of kindergartners also defeated teams of lawyers (who built towers that averaged fifteen inches) as well as teams of CEOs (twenty-two inches).

Why did this happen? It is the combined efforts and the process that helps get better results rather than the individual knowledge and skills each person possesses. Rather than trying to prove how smart you are, kindergarteners worked in cooperation experimenting with different models, taking risks, adjusting to failures AND keeping focus on what is the outcome.

The kindergartners succeed not because they are e smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. we can measure its impact on the bottom line. (A strong culture increases net income 756 percent over eleven years, according to a Harvard study of more than two hundred companies.)

  • 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.

Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.

SKILL 1 – Build Safety

Will Felps, who studies organizational behavior at the University of South Wales in Australia. Felps suggests three negative archetypes: the Jerk (an aggressive, defiant deviant), the Slacker (a withholder of effort), and the Downer (a depressive Eeyore type). The result from having a person play these individual negative archetypes.  Group performance diminished by 30-40%. So, bad apples do have an effect.  Refusing to address these issues will negatively influence the outcomes.

The following observation really caught my attention. First, we tend to think group performance depends on measurable abilities like intelligence, skill, and experience, not on a subtle pattern of small behaviors. Second surprise is that Jonathan succeeds without taking any of the actions we normally associate with a strong leader.

These interactions were consistent whether the group was a military unit or a movie studio or an inner-city school. I made a list:

  • 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-you’s, opening doors, etc.)

Alex Pentland, MIT, wrote a book titled Social Physics (2014). He found language is made up of belonging cues. Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?

Belonging cues possess three basic qualities:

  1. Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring
  2. Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued
  3. Future orientation: They signal the relationship will continue

The key to creating psychological safety, as Alex Pentland and Amy Edmondson emphasize, is to recognize how deeply obsessed our unconscious brains are with it. A mere hint of belonging is not enough; one or two signals are not enough. We are built to require lots of signaling, over and over.  

Overall Pentland’s studies show that team performance is driven by five measurable factors:

  1. Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
  2. Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  3. Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  5. Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others.

Coyle shares a story about the competition between a company call Overture which was well funded and had very smart people, from major universities, on their team.  The goal was to build a software engine with a search function and connect it to advertisements.  This story is similar to the Langley v. Wright Bros competition for designing airplanes.  Overture was beaten out by an unknown group called Google.  It seems safer was better than smarter.  Humm, any applications to your organization?

Belonging feels like it happens from the inside out, but in fact it happens from the outside in. Our social brains light up when they receive a steady accumulation of almost invisible cues: We are close, we are safe, we share a future. Basic questions: Are we connected? Do we share a future? Are we safe?

I ask, ‘how safe is your company, school, or surroundings?’ As this relates to schools, researchers discovered that one particular form of feedback boosted student effort and performance so immensely that they deemed it “magical feedback.” Students who received it chose to revise their papers far more often than students who did not, and their performance improved significantly. The feedback was not complicated. In fact, it consisted of one simple phrase. I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them. That’s it. Just nineteen words it contains three separate 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.

What cues are you sending in your organization?

There is a story about Tony Hsieh, Zappos.  He wants to create collisions. Collisions—defined as serendipitous personal encounters— are, he believes, the lifeblood of any organization, the key driver of creativity, community, and cohesion. I have read about the ‘watercooler effect’ in other books.  How do you get people talking, sharing ideas, and refining what works?

Each of the three parts, called Skills, conclude with ‘Ideas for Action.’

Part One Skill – Build Safety – Ideas for Action

Spotlight Your Fallibility Early On-Especially If You’re a Leader. I like Amy Edmondson’s quote, “hug the messenger.”

Preview Future Connection. A study by Amir Goldberg at Stanford showed that it was possible to predict how long employees stayed by how frequently their emails contained family references and swear words.

Overdo Thank-You’s. Gregg Popovich takes each of his star players aside and thanks them for allowing him to coach them. When Coyle visited KIPP Infinity, a remarkable charter school in Harlem, New York, he witnessed teachers thanking one another over and over. Here is the unheralded person who makes our success possible.

Be Painstaking in the Hiring Process  See Lazlo Bock (2015), Work Rules.

Eliminate Bad Apples’  New Zealand All-Blacks, the rugby squad that ranks as one of the most successful teams on the planet, achieve this through a rule that simply states, “No Dickheads.” It’s simple, and that’s why it’s effective.

Create Safe, Collision-Rich Spaces Create spaces that maximize collisions.

Make Sure Everyone Has a Voice

Pick Up Trash:  John Wooden, the team’s legendary head coach, was picking up trash in the locker room. “Here was a man who had already won three national championships,”

Capitalize on Threshold Moments:  We need you to help us make our films better “It’s incredibly powerful,”

Avoid Giving Sandwich Feedback

Embrace Fun

SKILL 2 – Share Vulnerability – Ideas for Action

There is a story of an airplane that had an explosion and how the crew managed to land the plane.  The crew of Flight 232 communicated at a rate of more than sixty notifications per minute

The crew of Flight 232 succeeded not because of their individual skills but because they were able to combine those skills into a greater intelligence. They demonstrated that a series of small, humble exchanges—Anybody have any ideas? Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you—can unlock a group’s ability to perform. The key involves the willingness to perform a certain behavior that goes against our every instinct: sharing vulnerability.

Other stories include Navy SEALS, candor-filled moments happen in the After-Action Review (AAR). The AAR is a gathering that takes place immediately after each mission or training session: Where did we fail? What did each of us do, and why did we do it? What will we do differently next time? AARs can be raw, painful, and filled with pulses of emotion and uncertainty.

Pixar, those uncomfortable moments happen in what they call BrainTrust meetings. The BrainTrust meeting is not fun. But it’s also where those movies get better. Pixar president Ed Catmull. “it  is the most important thing we do by far. It depends on completely candid feedback.”

A concept that interested me was the ‘vulnerability loop.’ Trust comes down to context. And what drives it is the sense that you’re vulnerable, that you need others and can’t do it on your own.”  Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust—it precedes it

The book describes some people who energize thinking.  One person was Harry Nyquist at Bell Labs.  He was characterized as ‘fatherly’ and having ‘relentless curiosity.’  They said he drew people out and got them thinking. People described him as having ‘relentless curiosity.’ If we think of successful cultures as engines of human cooperation, then the Nyquists are the spark plugs.

Another person cited is Roshi Givechi works at the New York office of IDEO, the international design firm headquartered in Palo Alto, California. Givechi is a designer. Unofficially, her role is to serve as ‘roving catalyst’, involved in a number of projects, helping the teams navigate the design process. WOW, I want people like that on my team.

Robert Bales, one of the first scientists to study group communication, discovered that while questions comprise only 6 percent of verbal interactions, they generate 60 percent of ensuing discussions. Here are some examples of cues that encourage thinking:

  • Maybe you’ve had an experience like this . . .
  • Your work might be similar . . .
  • The reason I was pausing there was . . .

Part Two Skill – Build Safety – Ideas for Action

Make Sure the Leader Is Vulnerable First and Often: Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends that leaders ask their people three questions:

  • What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do.
  • What is one thing that I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
  • What can I do to make you more effective?

Over communicate Expectations:  (CEO Tim Brown incessantly repeats his mantra that ‘the more complex the problem, the more help you need to solve.’

 Among the refrains:

  • Collaborate and Make Others Successful:
  • Going Out of Your Way to Help Others Is the Secret Sauce.

Deliver the Negative Stuff in Person:  One of the best methods for handling negative news is that of Joe Maddon, the coach of the Chicago Cubs and avowed oenophile. Maddon keeps a glass bowl filled with slips of paper, each inscribed with the name of an expensive wine. When a player violates a team rule, Maddon asks them to draw a slip of paper out of the bowl, purchase that wine, and uncork it with their manager. In other words, Maddon links the act of discipline to the act of reconnection.

When Forming New Groups, Focus on Two Critical Moments:  these two critical moments happen early in a group’s life. They are:

  1. The first vulnerability
  2. The first disagreement

These small moments are doorways to two possible group paths: Are we about appearing strong or about exploring the landscape together? Are we about winning interactions, or about learning together?

Listen Like a Trampoline:   Good listening is about more than nodding attentively; it’s about adding insight and creating moments of mutual discover) t effective listeners do four things:

  1. They interact in ways that make the other person feel safe and supported
  2. They take a helping, cooperative stance
  3. They occasionally ask questions that gently and constructively challenge old assumptions
  4. They make occasional suggestions to open up alternative paths

As Zenger and Folkman put it, the most effective listeners behave like trampolines. They aren’t passive sponges. They are active responders, absorbing what the other person gives, supporting them, and adding energy to help the conversation gain velocity and altitude. Also like trampolines, effective listeners gain amplitude through repetition. “I’ve found that whenever you ask a question, the first response you get is usually not the answer—it’s just the first response.

In Conversation. Resist the Temptation 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. This means having the willpower to forgo easy opportunities to offer solutions and make suggestions. Skilled listeners do not interrupt with phrases like Hey, here’s an idea or Let me tell you what worked for me in a similar situation because they understand that it’s not about them.          

Givechi. ” ‘Say more about that. Givechi calls “a scaffold of thoughtfulness.” The scaffold underlies the conversation, supporting the risks and vulnerabilities. Without it, the conversation collapses.

Use Candor-Generating Practices like AARs, BrainTrusts, and Red Teaming.  The good AAR structure is to use five questions:

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

Some teams also use a Before-Action Review, which is built around a similar set of questions: .

  • What are our intended results?
  • What challenges can we anticipate?
  • What have we or others learned from similar situations.’
  • What will make us successful this time.

Red Teaming is a military-derived method for testing strategies; you create a “red team” to come up with ideas to disrupt or defeat your proposed plan. The key is to select a red team that is not wedded to the existing plan in any way, and to give them freedom to think in new ways that the planners might not have anticipated.

As a high school principal, I have used a Red Team several times to SAVE TIME.  I ask some of my most creative (yes, sometimes hard to deal with students) to give me feedback before implementing a policy change or new project.  I ask this group of students to tell me how they will beat the system.  It usually take about fifteen minutes for five or six students to figure out a way to sabotage a solution.  Love those kids.

AARs, BrainTrusts, and Red Teams each 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.

Aim for Candor; Avoid Brutal Honesty: Giving honest feedback is tricky, because it can easily result in people feeling hurt or demoralized. Pixar, is to aim for candor and avoid brutal honesty.

Embrace the Discomfort:  two discomforts: emotional pain and a sense of inefficiency. the key is to understand that the pain is not a problem but the path to building a stronger group.

Align Language with Action:  navy pilots returning to aircraft carriers do not “land” but are “recovered.” IDEO doesn’t have “project managers”— it has “design community leaders.” Groups at Pixar do not offer “notes” on early versions of films; they “plus” them by offering solutions to problems.

Build a Wall Between Performance Review and Professional Development  to keep performance review and professional development separate. Performance evaluation tends to be a high-risk, inevitably judgmental interaction, often with salary-related consequences. Development, on the other hand, is about identifying strengths and providing support and opportunities for growth.

Use Flash Mentoring:  pick someone you want to learn from and shadow them – instead of months or years, it lasts a few hours. Those brief interactions help break down barriers inside a group, build relationships, and facilitate the awareness that fuels helping behavior.

Make the Leader Occasionally Disappear:  One of the best at this is Gregg Popovich. Most NBA teams run time-outs according to a choreographed protocol: First the coaches huddle as a group for a few seconds to settle on a message, then they walk over to the bench to deliver that message to the players. However, Spurs coaches huddle for a time-out. . . and then never walk over to the players. The players sit on the bench, waiting for Popovich to show up. Then, as they belatedly realize he isn’t coming, they take charge, start talking among themselves, and figure out a plan

Skill 3 – Establish Purpose

1965, a Harvard psychologist named Robert Rosenthal found a way. Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition, which could accurately predict which children would excel academically in the coming year. The teachers were informed, these students were special. The first-graders gained  27 IQ points {versus 12 points for the rest of the class); and the second-graders gained 17 points (versus 7 points).

Here’s the twist: the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition was complete baloney. In fact, the “high-potentials” had been selected at random. The simple, glowing idea—This child has unusual potential for intellectual growth—aligned motivations, awareness, and behaviors.

Rosenthal classified the changes into four categories.

  1. Warmth (the teachers were kinder, more attentive, and more connective)
  2. Input (the teachers provided more material for ^learning)
  3. Response-opportunity (the teachers called on the students more often, and listened more carefully)
  4. Feedback (the teachers provided more, especially when the student made a mistake)

Every time the teacher interacted with the student, a connection lit up in the teacher’s brain between the present and the future. Each time the student did something ambiguous, the teacher gave the student the benefit of the doubt. Each time the student made a mistake, the teacher presumed that the student needed better feedback.

Amy Edmondson observed two hospitals to find out how a new procedure would help patients.  She focused on what make successful teams which led to successful treatment for patients. The answer, Edmondson discovered, lay in the patterns of real-time signals through which the team members were connected (or not) with the purpose of the work. These signals consisted of five basic types:

  1. Framing: Successful teams conceptualized MICS (the new procedure) as a learning experience that would benefit patients and the hospital. Unsuccessful teams conceptualized MICS as an add-on to existing practices
  2. Roles: Successful teams were explicitly told by the team leader why their individual and collective skills were important for the team’s success, and why it was important for them to perform as a team. Unsuccessful teams were not.
  3. Rehearsal: Successful teams did elaborate dry runs of the procedure, preparing in detail, explaining the new protocols, and talking about communication. Unsuccessful teams took minimal steps to prepare.
  4. Explicit encouragement to speak up: Successful teams were told by team leaders to speak up if they saw a problem; they were actively coached through the feedback process. The leaders of unsuccessful teams did little coaching, and as a result team members were hesitant to speak up.
  5. Active reflection: Between surgeries, successful teams went over performance, discussed future cases, and suggested improvements. For example, the team leader at Mountain Medical wore a head mounted camera during surgery to help facilitate discussion and feedback. Unsuccessful teams tended not to do this.

Note what factors are not on this list: experience, surgeon status, and organizational support. These qualities mattered far less than the simple, steady pulse of real-time signals that channeled attention toward the larger goal. Edmondson discovered the value of those signals is not in their information but in the fact that they orient the team to the task and to one another.

Each year around a thousand new restaurants open in New York City. All are launched with optimism, confidence, and high hopes for success. Five years later eight hundred of them have vanished without a trace, for various reasons that are, in essence, the same reason. A successful restaurant, like a successful Antarctic expedition, depends on ceaseless proficiency. Good food is not enough. Good location is not enough. Good service, training, branding, leadership, adaptability, and luck are not enough. Survival depends on putting all of it together, night after night. If you fail, you disappear.

The reason Meyer’s restaurants are so successful is the warm, connective feeling they create, a positive feeling amongst the staff.  They do not do ‘skunking.’ Skunking is spraying negative energy into the workplace, as skunks do when they’re frightened.

Meyer’s catchphrases focus on how to respond to mistakes.

  • You can’t prevent mistakes, but you can solve problems graciously.
  • If it ain’t broke, fix it.
  • Mistakes are like waves; servers are really surfers.
  • The road to success is paved with mistakes well handled.

Catmull has learned to focus less on the ideas than on people. One of Bill’s favorite quotes is from Ed Catmull: “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.”

Catmull has almost no direct involvement with creative decisions. This is because he realizes that

  • the teams are in a better position to solve problems
  • a suggestion from a powerful person tends to be followed.

Catmull is congenitally wary of mottoes and catchphrases, handful of “Ed-isms” are heard in Pixar’s corridors. Here are a few:

  • 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.

Part Three Skill – Establish Purpose – Ideas for Action

The difference with successful cultures seems to be that they use the crisis to crystallize their purpose.’ It’s not as simple as carving a mission statement in granite or encouraging everyone to recite from a hymnal of catchphrases.           

Name and Rank Your Priorities’  Most successful groups end up with a small handful of priorities (five or fewer), 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:  Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so.

Figure Out Where Your Group Aims for Proficiency and Where It Aims for Creativity  You want to spotlight the goal and provide crystal-clear directions to the checkpoints along the way.

Embrace the Use of Catchphrases:  When you look at successful groups, a lot of their internal language features catchphrases that often sound obvious, rah-rah, or corny. The trick to building effective catchphrases is to keep them simple, action-oriented, and forthright: “

  • Create fun and a little weirdness” (Zappos), “
  • Talk less, do more” (IDEO), ‘
  • Work hard, be nice” (KIPP),
  • “Pound the rock” (San Antonio Spurs),
  • “Leave the jersey in a better place” (New Zealand All-Blacks),
  • “Create raves for guests” (Danny Meyer’s restaurants).

Measure What Really Matters   Personal Emotional Connections (PECs) or creating a bond outside the conversation about the product . So when a customer service agent spent a company-record 10 hours and 29 minutes on a call, Zappos celebrated and sent out a press release.

Use Artifacts  the battle gear of soldiers killed in combat at the Navy SEAL headquarters; the Oscar trophies accompanied by hand-drawn sketches of the original concepts at Pixar.

Focus on Bar-Setting Behaviors  One challenge of building purpose is to translate abstract ideas (values, mission) into concrete terms. One way successful groups do this is by spotlighting a single task and using it to define their identity and set the bar for their expectation.


Bock, Lazlo. (2015). Work Rules.  New York:  Twelve

Catmull, Ed (2014). Creativity, Inc.ˆ New York:  Random House.

Edmondson, Amy. (2012). Teaming.   San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass

Edmondson, Amy. (2019). The Fearless Organization. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons

Pentland, Alex. (2014). Social Physics.  New York:  Penguin