The Culture Code

The best books are the ones that change your perspective, your view on the world, in such a profound way that you don’t look at it the same way ever again. To illustrate this fundamental switch, Jeremy Keith likes to give the example of ducks and dog masks. All ducks look perfectly normal at first, until you are told that all ducks are actually wearing dog masks all the time:

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Once you see it that way, it is impossible to unsee.

I just finished listening to the audio version of such a book. The Culture Code, The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups, by Daniel Coyle, in an in-depth look at why some teams fail miserably while others thrive and add up to be greater than just the sum of their parts.

In the ten years I’ve been working as a freelance designer now, I’ve seen many different teams and organizations. I worked with agencies large and small, with startups, individuals, and large, highly-hierarchical organizations that organize their work environments and decision-making processes down to the last detail. Joining a new team and seeing how – or if – its members successfully work together to create great work is one of the most fascinating things of working as an independent designer. In their attempt to get ever more efficient and produce great work, I’ve seen agencies take many different approaches to team organization. And surprisingly often, project managers, team leaders, and executives seem to think that in order for a team to get more productive and creative, one must dictate clearly defined processes and give strict instructions. If a team fails to produce extraordinary work, the first instinct is often to call for more discipline or more guidance and to increase pressure on individual team members. It seems as if the old assembly-line model is so ingrained in people that, especially in angular-shaped Germany, the desire to do things “the right way” leads to executives making decisions that could not be more wrong if you want to create an environment where creative teams live up to their full potential.

As The Culture Code shows, in order for teams to successfully work together and create outstanding work, psychological safety is key. Team members who feel safe are more likely to build connections, more likely to take risks, and more likely to cooperate regardless of rank or status. As a consequence, successful teams almost work as a single entity when solving problems. They talk in short, clear bursts of information, ask lots of questions, and listen actively. I feel like this is also a key reason why prototyping works so well as a tool for collaboration, but that’s another story.

To feel safe, we as human beings are prone to so-called “belonging cues”, little moments of social interactions like close physical proximity, body language, eye contact, active listening, and other ways of paying close attention to each other. These belonging cues tell our brains that “we are safe here”, that there is no danger lurking anywhere and we can therefore safely work with those people and in the environment, we are in. And, equally important, belonging cues signal that the relationship will continue, that is, that we will have a future together that is worth investing in. The last piece in the puzzle is purpose: Establishing purpose by creating shared goals and values will provide teams with the necessary map to navigate the obstacles and uncertainty of a fast-changing world, while also providing a sense of proficiency and excellence. This is how we do things around here.

The author then goes on to tell dozens of stories of successful teams and cultures like the basketball team of the San Antonio Spurs, U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six, or design firm IDEO, and shares many common principles of cultural chemistry and actionable insights that transform individuals into functional teams, including the idea that leaders of successful teams should be vulnerable first and most often instead of relying on the old-fashioned and ineffective leadership style of “command and control”.

Whether you are working in a team that needs fixing, leading a team that is up to something great, or are an executive who wonders why all those young, talented people don’t seem to live up to their full potential and are leaving your company far too early, The Culture Code is a must-read. It is transformative and eye-opening in that it shows just how wrong so many of the deeply ingrained habits and ideas about teamwork of the assembly-line model of work are and it is full of great advice on how to improve as a team and as an organization. You will never look at your team the same way.


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