Book Review: The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

The Culture Code Book Review

How can a group of kindergartners be smarter than and outperform a team of business school students, lawyers, engineers and other professionals?  That is precisely what Daniel Coyle explores in his power-packed book The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

Culture is a big theme for us at TAQ and I chanced upon this book while doing some background reading for a project. Written in an engaging style, the book is a result of four years of research into some of the world’s most successful groups including a special ops military unit, a basketball team, a group of jewel thieves, and a comedy troupe. Coyle argues that strong group cultures are created through specific behaviors and skills and do not just happen by default. Specifically, he prescribes three things that leaders can do:

1.  Build safety

2.  Share vulnerability

3.  Establish purpose

To a jaded mind, these points might sound rather cheesy. The charm of the book is in the how – the brilliant links that Coyle draws between each principle, the inspiring stories in which they come alive and the amazing outcomes that result from the application of each idea.

For example, the story of Jeff Dean, an employee who worked through the weekend to solve a problem that Google was facing. Their Adwords engine that matches search strings to appropriate ads had a bug. Jeff Dean was not a part of the team working on the Adwords engine. But when he saw a little note pinned to the notice board, he just spontaneously picked it up, worked through it, and around 5:00 am on Monday morning submitted a piece of code that solved the problem. And then he went to sleep! He expected nothing in return because this sort of behavior was so normal at Google. People just contribute wherever they can without grandstanding or worrying about who gets credit for what.

This is invaluable for leaders who want to minimize the jostling and politicking and maximize the power of the team. A few possible limitations of this thesis:

  • There are many teams who are high performing despite working in super competitive, driven, even toxic cultures. The book doesn’t really mention any of these or offer a point of view on these kinds of team cultures. 
  • Despite the fact that Coyle continuously emphasizes that all of this is not necessarily a pleasant process – there is great discomfort built into the method – during implementation, this aspect is easy to forget in the allure of a much more feel-good idea of safety. We see this happening a lot with the clients we work with. It can be difficult in practice to balance the warm conversations with the tough ones.
  • The method demands very high involvement from everyone, and so will work well with small groups of 4-6 people at a time. Many such groups through an organization will make it a lived culture – but in practice it is one group at a time. So if you are looking for a quick fix to guide culture from a very macro level, this is not it.

For any leader seeking to build a strong culture of performance, this book is a must read. In fact, it may need to be read more than once. The first reading goes by quickly and generates a lot of ideas. It is in the second reading, armed with pen and paper and taking notes, that a practitioner can deep dive into the links that will bring the desired behavior alive on the ground.