Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Coyle, The Culture Code

Daniel Coyle, author of the bestselling The Talent Code, has, in my opinion, topped that book with The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (Bantam Books, 2017). He explores three skills that he believes are critical to group success. They might seem a bit vapid at first, but Coyle develops and illustrates them convincingly. First, build safety: “signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.” Second, share vulnerability: “habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.” And third, establish purpose: “narratives create shared goals and values.”

As one of many examples of building safety, Coyle describes an experiment consisting of two scenarios and a question. First, you’re standing in the rain at a train station. A stranger approaches and politely asks, “Can I borrow your cellphone?” Second, in the same setting, the stranger politely says, “I’m so sorry about the rain. Can I borrow your cellphone?” To which stranger are you more likely to hand over your cellphone? Staggeringly, the second scenario caused the response rate to jump 422 percent.

When it comes to the efficacy of sharing vulnerability, Coyle recalls Steve Jobs’s penchant for starting conversations with “Here’s a dopey idea.” (And some of his ideas really were dopey.) And then there was the MIT team that won the $40,000 DARPA red balloon challenge, which consisted of locating ten large red balloons deployed at secret locations throughout the United States. The team found out about the challenge only four days before launch, so they had no time to craft an organized approach. Instead, they built a website that invited people to join the team and have all their friends sign up as well. And they promised to give $2000 per balloon to the first person to send the correct coordinates, $1000 to the person who invited them, $500 to whoever invited the inviter, etc. As Coyle writes, “This wasn’t a well-equipped team; it was closer to a hastily scrawled plea shoved into a bottle and lobbed into the ocean of the Internet: ‘If you find this, please help!’” Thousands of teams competed in the DARPA challenge, which organizers figured would take up to a week to complete. But in less than eight hours, the MIT team had found all ten balloons, with the help of 4,665 people. They had created “a fast, deep wave of motivated teamwork and cooperation.”

As for the third skill, establishing purpose, Coyle argues that “creating engagement around a clear, simple set of priorities can function as a lighthouse, orienting behavior and providing a path toward a goal.” Coyle recounts the Tylenol disaster, which Johnson & Johnson handled brilliantly by hewing to the company credo. Or, for me a more local example is the men’s hockey team at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT. The coach built a culture around a behavior he calls “Forty for Forty,” which refers to back-checking (“rushing back to the defensive end in response to the other team’s attack”). Back-checking happens around forty times a game, and the coach’s goal is that his players go all-out on each one. “Back-checking is exhausting, requires keen attentiveness, and—here’s the key—rarely makes a difference in the game.” But the perhaps one in forty times it makes a difference, it can change a game.

If you’re on a team or lead a team, this book may just change your game too.

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