The Culture Code: A book review by Bob Morris

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups
Daniel Coyle
Bantam Books/An imprint of Random House (January 2018)

How and why “small efforts are powerful because they transmit, amplify, and celebrate the purpose of the whole group”

A few books are even more valuable years after they were first published. For example….

In a previous book, The Talent Code, Dan Coyle duly (and gratefully) acknowledges the importance of Anders Ericsson’s research and his conclusion that greatness isn’t born; rather, it is developed by a combination of luck (i.e. being “given” opportunities); ignition (i.e. self-motivation activated by one or more “primal cues”), what Coyle calls “deep practice“ (i.e. 10, 000 hours of focused and disciplined repetition, requiring an energetic and passionate commitment), and master coaching provided by “talent whisperers” who “possess vast, deep frameworks of knowledge, which they apply to the steady, incremental work of growing skill circuits, which they ultimately don’t control.”

At one point in his narrative (Page 72), Coyle declares, “We are myelin beings.” OK, but so what? When tapping into a neurological mechanism in which certain patterns of targeted practice builds skills, we create entry to “a zone of accelerated learning that, while it can’t quite be bottled, can be accessed by those who know how. In short, they’re cracked the talent code.”

When introducing latest his book, Couyle suggests, “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 bed less?” As I thought about this, I was again reminded of how difficult it can be for individuals with extraordinary talent and superior skills to work together effectively on a team. We know it can be done. Consider, for example, the Disney animators who created classics such as Snow White, Bambi, and Dumbo and the physicists involved with the Manhattan Project. Consider, also, those who collaborated on breakthrough achievements at Lckheed’s “Skunk Works” and Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Coyle cites a much more interesting example. In a construction project organized by Peter Skillman, four-person teams comprised of business school students, lawyers, CEOs, ands kindergartners competed against each other to build the tallest possible structure using only twenty uncooked pieces of spaghetti, one yard of transparent tape, one yard of string, and one standard-size marshmallow. In dozens of trials, the kindergartners won. Coyle explains why and how on pages xvi-xvii. “This book is the story of how that method works.”

Coyle focuses on three skills that “tap into the power of our social brains to create interactions like the ones used by the kindergartners building the spaghetti tower”: Build Safety, Share Vulnerability, and Establish Purpose. “While successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not. Culture is a set of living relationships working together toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.” And it is done in collaboration. It is important to keep in mind that this method can be adopted by almost any team in almost any organization — whatever its size and nature may be.

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, we have a Farmer’s Market at which a few merchants offer sliced fruit as samples of their wares. In that spirit, I now offer two brief excerpts from Chapter 4 — Hows to Build Belonging — to suggest the thrust and flavor of Coyle’s approach.

On how the leadership style of San Antonio Spurs’ coach, Greg Popovich, creates the most cohesive team in all of sports: “He fills the cups…He delivers two things over and over: He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death…’Hug ’em and hold ’em is the way Popovich often puts it to his assistants. ‘We gotta hug ’em and hold ’em’…he uses food and wine as a bridge to build relationships with players…The Spurs eat together approximately as often as they play basketball together. First there are the team dinners, regular gatherings of all players. Then there are smaller group dinners, handfuls of players getting together. Then there are the coach’s dinners, which happens every night on the road before a game. Popovich plans them, picking the restaurants, sometimes two a night to explore.”

On how Popovich’s feedback communicates a sense of belonging:

o “Personal, up-close connection (body language, attention, and behavior that translates I care about you)
o “Performance feedback (relentless coaching and criticism that translates as We have high standards here
o “Big-picture perspective (larger conversations about politics, history, and food that translate as Life is bigger than basketball).”

How interesting, and informative, that these and other comments on Greg Popovich’s leadership of a highly successful group have little (if anything) to do with basketball, except as the context within which healthy relationships are strengthened even more. Throughout history, the greatest leaders have indeed attracted loyal followers by convincing that they will be part of a special group, one that has very high standards, and their leaders are convinced that they can reach those standards.

These are among the passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope and depth of Coyle’s coverage:

o Alex Pentland and group chemistry (Pages 8-15)
o How becoming cues functions in the brain (21-26)
o Empathy and belong (27-36)
o The One-Hour Experiment (36-39)
o TheRelationship Maker (48-60)
o Ideas for Action: Building Safety (74-78)
o Group “Muscle” (98-101)
o The Red Balloon Challenge (107-113)
o Ideas for Action: Building Ideas of Group Vulnerability (158-168)
o Teaching “special kids” (185-186)
o Connection Signals (195-197)
o Danny Meyer and Proficiency (200-214)

Obviously, no brief commentary such as mine could possible do full justice to the quality of the material that Daniel Coyle provides in his latest book but I hope I have at least indicated why I think so highly of him and his immense contributions to thought leadership. Thanks to him, Anders Ericsson, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Daniel Kahneman (as well as a few others), the “secrets” of highly successful groups are no longer secrets but the challenge remains to create those teams and then guide them to high-impact breakthrough results. Understanding HOW is why Daniel Coyle wrote this book. For senior-level executives in almost any organization, whatever its size and nature may be, The Culture Code is a “must read.”


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