Book Review: The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle

Prompted by a fascinating conversation thread with Kat Howard (@saysmiss) on culture , I returned to Daniel Coyle’s (@DanielCoyle) book “The Culture Code” today, intending to briefly remind myself of what I was going to contribute to a thread. Some hours later, I finished re reading it. 

There are a number of authors that balance this mixture of “business school, psychology professor, and corporate consultant” in their style, including Adam Grant and Simon Sinek. It’s an approach that I really enjoy reading and exploring, particularly as one of the most common features is their good storytelling. While there are subtle differences in their approach – Grant tends to be quite academic, with footnotes and references, Sinek seems to be more about the story and the message – Coyle seems to weave a nice thread between their work. I think I’ve read that Grant & Sinek are good friends now, after an initial period of uncertainty; and I could easily imagine Daniel Coyle joining that line up and making a superb panel of discussions!

Originally written as a follow up to the Talent Code, a book exploring individual creativity factors, like Grant’s “Originals”, Coyle’s book is a really readable analysis of lessons learned from a huge range of examples and case studies. In short, there are three key lessons that he draws out.  

First, Coyle talks about creating “psychological safety”. He argues that strong cultures flood the zone with belonging cues — simple, short signals that create a sense of connection and future. They show care, commitment, and create a strong, deep connection. He uses examples from a range of different places, including KIPP schools, the San Antonio Spurs, Google (of course!), WIPRO and Tony Hsieh, and tells the story of how to build up safety and how it’s been done. I really liked the call to action at the end, with very practical suggestions of specific measurable things you can do. Most of these examples were unfamiliar to me before reading this; lots of people look at Google for creativity and other explorations, but this is the first time I’ve seen “under the hood” of the safety culture.

Second, Coyle talks about sharing vulnerability. Strong cultures have a set of habits that helps them share risk and weakness. This is the one most groups simply don’t get. In good cultures, Coyle says, people continually share uncomfortable truths with each other. Those hard truths might have to do with their own shortcomings, or with a group performance, but they have the same function: they wash away all the distractions of status, and create a shared truth around which the group can work to improve.

Coyle’s approach here is to show the different ways that teams, from Pixar, via international jewel thieves and improvisational comedians, to SEAL Team 6 are able to exchange frank and supportive analysis of their performance as part of how they get better. Kim Scott’s Radical Candor is a mechanistic analysis of how this needs to be done, but Coyle looks at the consequences of how the team do it. Personally, I think that diversity of examples is what makes Doyle’s work so readable. There isn’t a sense of “corporate world” and profit and bottom line, or a semi hero worship of military masculinity… there’s a blended and more diverse range of aspects, voices, and examples. To an extent, I think this makes the shared commonality of message more powerful, too… seeing that all of these teams share the same magic, and the ingredients are understandable and actionable. The depth of each example is narrated effectively and authentically: you get enough depth and context to understand how this team operates, and I think Coyle is excellent in identifying and pulling out the key threads and analysis to emphasise for the inexpert reader!

Third, Coyle talks about the work that Sinek has done more of, in how groups establish purpose — a set of super-clear shared goals that they put in the group’s windshield. Strong cultures work to unearth and expose the core narratives of their group, then drastically overcommunicate those narratives, using every possible mode (story, artifacts around the space, video, slogans, you name it). KIPP schools, and TLAC are very clear case studies here, and so too are Tylenol, Johnson and Johnson, Meyer restaurants, the Portuguese riot police and Pixar. Again, the diversity of experience and message reinforces the importance of groups doing this for themselves; rather than simply copying what’s been done by someone else. Johnson & Johnson’s Credo would be useless for the SEALs, and KIPPs now partially discredited “work hard, be kind” might not suit the SEALs either. Equally, the SEAL motto of “Shoot, Move, Communicate” isn’t a good look for the Portuguese riot police. You get the idea.

Early on in the book, Coyle talks about wanting to spend more time with each of these high performing cultures, and finding excuses to go back and ask them a little bit more. I feel the same way about this book. It provides a flavour of analysis, and often links up areas where specific books and work have been done – referencing Kerr on “Legacy”, or “It’s Your Ship”, or various other authors. An interesting reading guide is provided at the end, as are academic references where relevant, but so much of this is based on participant observation or personal anecdote that it doesn’t feel like an academic text. 

With short actionable points, the book gives a lot of practical perspectives, and translates the many stories in to a coherent, readable picture of cultures and how to build great ones. Doyle writes and investigates like a journalist, and a good one: the story is compelling, and you almost don’t realise how much you are learning until you stop and think about it.

The net impression is of someone giving you the highlights of a lifetime of experience, of reading, of so many stories they could tell… and I was drawn in to wanting to know more. Despite only wanting to dip in to this to satisfy a thread of curiosity on a Twitter thread, I re-read the whole book in basically an afternoon. It’s a compelling topic – exploring cultures and how we create them – but I think the writing style of Coyle is equally compelling.

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