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Here is an excerpt from an interview of Daniel Coyle by Emily Adeyanju for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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Bestselling author Daniel Coyle defines the essential elements that create the foundation for optimal company culture.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Emily Adeyanju speaks with Daniel Coyle about his new book The Culture Playbook: 60 Highly Effective Actions to Help Your Group Succeed (Bantam Books, May 2022). Coyle, a New York Times bestselling author and adviser to tech giants Google and Microsoft and to the Navy SEALs, shares actionable insights on company culture and proven methods that allow teams to connect over shared goals and a common purpose. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Why did you write this book?
I developed a career as a researcher and a journalist looking at the science of performance. I basically go places, places where people are really, really good at what they do, and I see what makes them tick. It looks like magic from a distance, but it’s not magic.We all know that feeling of walking into a group, whether that’s a business or a school or a team or a community, and there’s just energy, right? There’s some chemistry. There’s some feel. There’s some cooperation, and trust, and selflessness. It feels like magic, but again, it’s not magic. It’s a thing. I’ve spent the last seven years looking deeply into what it’s made of and visiting the top-performing cultures on the planet—Pixar, Navy SEAL Team Six, San Antonio Spurs, even a Serbian gang of jewel thieves, which was kind of crazy—and seeing what makes them tick.This conversation becomes super important right now because we’re all trying to figure it out on the fly. This conversation didn’t happen two or three years ago. We find ourselves moving into this hybrid age. Work and culture are changing. The questions in front of all of us right now are, “How do we adapt? How do we stay connected and learn together?” This question of building culture has never been more urgent.The questions in front of all of us right now are, ‘How do we adapt? How do we stay connected and learn together?’ This question of building culture has never been more urgent.
What surprised you about the research for the writing of the book?
I spent about seven years going around to different organizations and seeing what they’re about, and I was consistently surprised by a couple things.

One was that these cultures are not happy in the way you would expect. We have this idea of what it’s like to work at Pixar or this idea of what it’s like to be on a top special-operations team or on the San Antonio Spurs. We think in our heads, “Those places operate on a higher plane; every idea is smart—there are never any bad ideas; there are never any ugly disagreements or anything.” In fact, that’s wrong.

At companies with top-performing cultures, there’s actually slightly more tension because they’re turning toward problems together. In bad cultures, a problem comes up, and people kind of turn away from it, right? In good cultures, they get super interested and turn toward it. They will have vibrant arguments about which idea is best because those arguments are taking place in the bounds of safe connection. It’s a different kind of fun. Think of it as type-two fun. Type-one fun is really happy and upbeat. Type-two fun is harder. It’s like climbing a mountain; you get a reward for the effort. I heard somebody say that the vibe of being in great cultures is solving hard problems with people you admire. You’re gathered shoulder to shoulder around the problem with people you admire.

The other surprise that hit me was how alive culture is. Even the very best cultures can fall apart, and even the worst cultures can turn around. We have this idea in our head that culture is fixed: Disney is just always going to be Disney, or the US Marines are always going to be the US Marines. Not true. These things change; they go up and down all the time. And that reinforces this deeper point that culture is not about words. It’s about behaviors—it’s like a language of behaviors that people are continually speaking.

Any high-performing culture needs to be sending these behaviors over and over again in the same way that our bodies need to have circulatory systems, nervous systems, and visual systems. Just like the functions of our body or the strength and health of our body, the strength and health of our culture depend on what we do every single day. No matter how great your culture is, no matter how bad your culture is, it depends on the actions that you’re taking right now.

Can you explain why companies should no longer aim for ‘culture fit’?

That is a term that is a synonym for “I feel comfortable with them.” If you say, “This woman over here is a good culture fit,” what does that really mean? If we interrogate that, that means “she reminds me of me. She talks like me. She walks like me. She wears the same clothes”—that kind of stuff, that’s what we’re really talking about.

With culture fit, you end up with the most cognitively dangerous group, which is a monoculture that can only think about things in a certain way. In this age we’re living in, where perspective is gold, being able to look at things in a new way is incredibly important. Regarding how to create a culture fit, I’d like to rethink that process because smart cultures actually do create culture fit—they do it with diverse people, though. The real question is, how do you create that connection with a diverse team so that they can tackle problems as a cohesive unit?

Regarding how to create a culture fit, I’d like to rethink that process because smart cultures actually do create culture fit—they do it with diverse people, though. The real question is, how do you create that connection with a diverse team so that they can tackle problems as a cohesive unit?

Some of the tools that I’ve seen smart cultures use for this have to do with processes like building a team charter together. That’s where you’d have a team together at the beginning of a project, and you’d ask some basic questions: “What end state are we going for here? How are we going to work together?” I’ve seen teams share user manuals, which is sort of a “guide to the best of me,” meaning “this is what you need to know about me to work with me.” Everyone shares those and creates shared awareness. A team charter is a similar process where teams get together and ask, “What tempo are we going to work at? Are we going to focus? How are we going to interact? How are we going to make decisions? How are we going to know that we’re making progress? Who are we going to go to for feedback?” They’re going to get all rules of engagement figured out so that they can fit together well, not just in a cosmetic way, but in a team way.

A big shift in our world, I think, is that we used to talk and think and focus on leadership: “Who’s the best leader? How can I be a leader?” As we move into this world that is demanding more adaptability, more learning, and more malleability, I think the real question to ask is not, “How can I be a great leader?” but “How can I be a great teammate?”

I’m going to offer a visual: a flock of birds flying through a forest at high speed, going around trees, staying together, moving toward some goal. Is there one bird that can say, “Move ten degrees to the left here, and now everybody turn to the right”? No. You have to self-organize in real time around these problems and obstacles. You have to stay oriented and aligned toward where you’re going. The question there is not, “How can I be the lead bird? How can I know everything?” It’s, “How can I create connection and trust and awareness of where we’re going and cohesion so that our group can, in real time, stay together and change?”

Those are two hard things to do: to stay together and still change, and then change again. That’s the real challenge of modern work. That’s why focusing on contribution and being a teammate matters way more than if you just are a fit.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Daniel Coyle is a bestselling author and former business adviser. Emily Adeyanju is a digital editor in McKinsey’s Charlotte, North Carolina, office.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.


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