The Culture Code
The Culture Code
By Daniel Coyle
Progress is rarely the result of lone individuals—rather, it is often the product of effective teams. In such organizations, members are comfortable with change, willing to make sacrifices for the group, and aren't afraid of raising uncomfortable questions. Unified in their mission, such groups transform industries.
Ineffective teams, on the other hand, constrain their members from realizing their potential. Mired by infighting and bureaucracy, the incentives and goals of the organization are aligned against those of the individual. Even with top-tier talent and abundant funding, poorly structured organizations die off, replaced by more functional ones. The factors that dictate group success can make or break companies.
Culture, according to Coyle, is the subject of interest when comparing groups. Extraordinary organizations excel at doing three things: they make their members feel safe, encourage them to be vulnerable with one another, and instill a clear sense of purpose. Across a variety of fields—business, art, and military—the best embody these attributes.
“Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon,” Pentland says. “For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our unconscious brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.”
Humans are inherently social, and safety is among those ancient pre-programed urges that once ensured survival. Today, we rely on the same set of belonging cues to reaffirm and promise our continued status in groups. Factors such as physical proximity, trust, and honest feedback are important in producing this sense of comfort. If their membership is uncertain, then individuals immediately start to prioritize their own interests. But with a sense of belonging, groups excel at skill allocation.
In the early days of Google, the company's AdWords engine responsible for matching searches to ads was failing. In response, founder Larry Page pinned the note "THESE ADS SUCK" on the wall. With the most pressing issue visible to anyone at the company, it was an open invitation for a fix. The solution came from Jeff Dean, at the time an engineer on the search team, who ignored his own problems to work out a solution in a few days. Despite being a pivotal fix that enabled the company's quick dominance of the pay-per-click market, Dean remembers the event as a routine occurrence.
Google was a hothouse of belonging cues; its people worked shoulder to shoulder and safely connected, immersed in their projects. Overture, despite its head start and their billion-dollar war chest, was handicapped by bureaucracy. Decision making involved innumerable meetings and discussions about technical, tactical, and strategic matters; everything had to be approved by multiple committees. Overture’s belonging scores would likely have been low. “It was a clusterfuck,” one employee told Wired magazine. Google didn’t win because it was smarter. It won because it was safer.
In the US military, Coyle contrasts the performance of two isolated groups responsible for maintaining the nuclear arsenal: the missileers responsible for silo maintenance, and the crews onboard submarines. Despite both working in remote and psychologically stressful environments, the missileers are subject to far more scandals and accidents than submariners. Coyle attributes this disparity in performance to cultural differences: the missileers have low hopes of career advancement, a hierarchy focused on discipline rather than growth, and have strong incentives to not speak out. In contrast, submariners operate close to one another, perform global patrols with goals beyond deterrence, and have a path to the top of the navy.
In the 1990s, sociologists James Baron and Michael Hannan analyzed the founding cultures of nearly two hundred technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. They found that most followed one of three basic models: the star model, the professional model, and the commitment model. The star model focused on finding and hiring the brightest people. The professional model focused on building the group around specific skill sets. The commitment model, on the other hand, focused on developing a group with shared values and strong emotional bonds. Of these, the commitment model consistently led to the highest rates of success. During the tech-bubble burst of 2000, the start-ups that used the commitment model survived at a vastly higher rate than the other two models, and achieved initial public offerings three times more often.
A sense of safety is important because it allows members to express themselves more freely. To reach the next step in cohesion, groups need to encourage vulnerability. As a logical extension to safety, vulnerability is important because it is one of the most common instances where an individual chooses to put the relationship or group above themselves. Even the most carefully thought out designs cannot always align group incentives with individual ones. In moments of crisis, the choice between preserving relationships versus self-interests defines the character of an organization.
Safety doesn't translate directly to vulnerability, however. Navy SEAL training is notorious for forcing its members through a physically grueling routine that produces some of the most adept soldiers in the world. According to Coyle, its real objective is to serve as an intense bonding experience. Shared suffering is one of the most effective ways to build relationships, and the exercises that comprise SEAL training are designed to emphasize the importance of individual sacrifice. When founder Draper Kauffman organized the first exercises, even he took part in the obstacle courses.
Thanks to Draper Kauffman, this exchange of vulnerability and interconnection is woven into every aspect of SEAL training and enshrined in a set of iron values. Everything is done as a group. Trainees must keep track of one another at all times; there is no greater sin than losing track of someone. During boat exercises, trainees constantly trade positions and leadership roles. Timed performances on runs are supposed to be held to an unbreakable standard, but instructors have been known to bend those standards for runners who slow down in order to help others, because they value the willingness of one person taking a risk for the sake of the team.
Outside the extreme conditions of SEAL training, Coyle highlights the techniques of improv theater. In most forms of improv, personal charm is enough to drive the performance. But in a "Harold," which consists of a series of two-person scenes interleaved with games, the long 40-minute format of the show forces attention on group dynamics. The Upright Citizens Brigade, whose members would go on to write and act in a slew of comedies including The Office, 30 Rock, and Parks and Recreation, centered their performances on the exercise. In such a format, there is no opportunity for any one person to become the star of the show—rather, everyone is a supporting actor.
“You have to let go of the need to be funny, to be the center of things,” says Nate Dern, former artistic director of UCB. “You have to be able to be naked, to be out of things to say, so that people can find things together. People say their minds should be blank, but that’s not quite it. They should be open.”
From the very start, successful companies align themselves with a core vision. According to Coyle, a sense of mission allowed Johnson & Johnson to successfully recover from the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, Pixar to continuously produce top-tier films, and Danny Meyer to manage Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack. In most large organizations, mission is more often shallow corporate-speak rather than anything of genuine substance. But in Coyle's examples, purpose facilitates the consideration of group-level goals over individual aspirations. Whether or not
In titling his book with the term "culture code," Coyle hints at a set of derivable rules for building sustainable organizations. I expected a work grounded in historical and scientific research, and whereas there are a handful of interesting studies cited throughout the book, the backbone of the book is a set of narratives on exemplary groups. Though Coyle may be a good storyteller, the problem here is that many of the groups here are so specialized and abnormal—Navy SEALs, NBA teams, and heart surgeons—that it imagining their applicability is difficult. It's down to the reader to parse out instances of attribution bias. The book is full of lists and recommendations, but there's a lack of material tying all of these tips into a larger practical strategy.
With that said, The Culture Code is an entertaining read. Although Coyle's narratives are hard to generalize, good stories are valuable in generating awareness of the broad range of different solutions that have been worked out. I'd hoped for a more insightful take on culture, but what I found was closer to a typical management guide.
The Power Law
By Sebastian Mallaby
The success of startups is incredibly skewed—most will fail, but a handful will succeed extremely well. This fundamental power law underlies the strategy and culture of venture capital. In The Power Law, Mallaby gives a history of Silicon Valley funding from its inception to today.