Here are my notes and thoughts from The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.
Peter Skillman held a competition to find out why some groups performed better than others. He challenged each group to build the tallest possible tower using 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. Consistently and repeatedly, kindergarteners outperform business school students and CEOs.
The kindergarteners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way.
A strong culture increases net income 765 over ten years, according to a Harvard study of more than 200 companies.
The three skills high performing teams need are:
Skill #1: Build Safety
For groups to thrive, everyone must feel safe.
Jerks, slackers and downers kill team dynamics. Small cues of nonbelonging can disrupt the chemistry of a group.
Alex Pentland from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab says his studies show team performance is driven by five measurable factors.
- Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contributions short.
- Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
- Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
- Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
- Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others.
On May 24, 2002, Larry Page pinned a note to the wall that said: “These ads suck.” This was in the context of Google’s competition with Overture to create targeted, online advertising. Jeff Dean, who was not even working on the project, saw the note and worked on the problem over the weekend. His work boosted the accuracy scores by double digits. Adwords is now a lifeblood for Google.
This type of honest feedback (these ads suck) and this time of work was normal at Google. They didn’t win because they were smarter; they won because they were safer.
- “I’m sorry about the rain…can I borrow your cell phone” is 422% more effective than “Can I borrow your cell phone.”
- Hospital patients admitted because of an attempted suicide that received a short postcard were readmitted at half the rate of the control group.
Belonging needs to be continually refreshed and reinforced.
The San Antonio Spurs have won no fewer than 117 games more than they should have, a rate more than double that of the next-nearest coach. Their scouting template includes a checkbox labeled “Not a Spur” and if checked, the player will not be pursued, no matter how talented. Chip Engelland, an assistant coach, on Greg Popovich; “He’ll tell you the truth, with no bullshit, and then he’ll love you to death.”
Great teams are energized and engaged, but at their core, their members are oriented less around achieving happiness than around solving hard problems together.
“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.” This is a safe place for you to give effort.
Tony Hseih designed his space for “collisions” – the lifeblood of any organization and the key driver of creativity, community, and cohesion.
Top salespeople rarely interrupt others.
A small thank you caused people to behave far more generously to a completely different person. Thank yous aren’t only expressions of gratitude, they are crucial belonging cues that generate a contagious sense of safety, connection, and motivation.
Key question: What would you change if you were in charge?
Key statement: Here’s why I hired you.
Skill #2: Share Vulnerability
“The BrainTrust is the most important thing we do by far. It depends on completely candid feedback.” – Ed Catmull, Pixar. “All our movies suck at first. The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and its also where they start not to suck.”
“Where did you go to high school?” vs. “Is there something you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time and why haven’t you done it?”
Vulnerability isn’t touchy-feely non-sense; it’s admitting you have weaknesses and that you could use help. Vulnerability isn’t the result of trust; it precedes it.
- Pixar’s BrainTrust
- After-Action Review (AAR) – The goal is not to assign credit or blame but to build a shared mental model that can be applied to future missions.
- Red Teams are put together to shoot holes in plans before they are executed.
When putting together a new project…
- The one thing that excites me about this particular opportunity is _____________
- I confess the one thing I’m not so excited about with this particular opportunity is ___________
- On this project, I’d really like to get better at __________
Laszlo Bock, former head of People Analytics at Google, recommends 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?
Overcommunicate expectations by a factor of ten.
- What were our intended results?
- What were our actual results?
- What caused our results?
- What will do we do the same next time?
- What will we do differently?
Skill #3: Establish Purpose
Envision a reachable goal and then envision the obstacles.
Robert Rosenthal conducted an experiment, telling teachers that about 20% of an elementary school body showed “unusual potential for intellectual growth.” The following year, those first-graders students had gained 27 IQ points (vs 12 points for the rest of the class) and the second-graders gained 17 points (versus 7 points).
The high potential students were selected at random.
Simply thinking they had an unusual potential for growth caused teachers to describe them as more curious, happier, better adjusted and more likely to experience success as adults.
One of the best measures of any group’s culture is its learning velocity – how quickly it improves its performance of a new skill.
Framing matters. Successful teams conceptualize a learning experience and can connect the dots to how it will benefit. “Here’s how this will help. Here’s why we are learning this.”
Flood the environment with narrative links between what they were doing now and what it means. It’s not about sending one big signal but using a handful of steady, ultra-clear signals aligned with a shared goal. Consistent rather than big. Everyday moments.
Building purpose in creative groups is not about generating a brilliant moment of breakthrough but rather about building systems that can church through lots of ideas in order to help unearth the right choices.
A suggestion from a powerful person tends to be followed. So be careful.
Inc. Magazine reports only 2% of employees can name their company’s top three priorities. Executives of those companies predicted 64% would be able to do so.