Book Review: The Culture Code

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There are a lot of books about culture and how to create a strong and healthy one. Daniel Coyle knew that a strong and effective culture is part of the secret sauce of successful organizations. He knew that “A strong culture increases net income 756 percent over 11 years, according to a Harvard study of more than 200 companies.” He thought he could look at strong cultures in a different way and write a book about it. Here’s how he puts it.

“I spent the last four years visiting and researching eight of the world’s most successful groups, including a special-ops military unit, an inner-city school, a professional basketball team, a movie studio, a comedy troupe, a gang of jewel thieves, and others. I found that their cultures are created by a specific set of skills”

Coyle started with a definition of culture that’s a little bit different than the norm. He says, “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are, it’s something you do.”

So, what is it that you do? What do people in organizations that create strong cultures do that their peers in other organizations don’t do? That’s what the Culture Code is all about.

Coyle organizes the book into three sections, each one of which relates to a specific skillset. The three skills are: build safety; share vulnerability; and establish purpose.

There are several chapters about each skill. There’s a good mix of stories and studies. Coyle chooses his examples carefully and tells their stories well. He doesn’t use bullet points or frequent summaries, so sometimes you will work to tease out his meaning. You can get a sense of this if you review my highlights from the Culture Code on Goodreads.

Most business authors put summaries of key points or action steps at the end of every chapter. Coyle doesn’t. Instead, he includes a chapter at the end of every section, titled “Ideas for Action.” That chapter functions as a review of the other chapters in the section. I think that’s a good device, but I’d rather he also put his key points at the end of every chapter.

Coyle’s a good storyteller and he makes it a point to try to tell stories you may have heard before from an angle where you haven’t seen them before. One of those stories is the story about Tylenol and its credo. Another is the story of the founding of Pixar.

In telling those stories, Coyle leaves out some interesting and potentially helpful things. For example, he tells us about the meeting where Johnson & Johnson executives reviewed the company’s credo to see if it should be revised. We know there was a meeting. But Coyle never tells us whether they changed the credo or not at that meeting. He simply jumps ahead to the Tylenol crisis, where the credo became guiding principles for one of the most successful disaster recovery examples ever.

Then, there’s the story of Ed Catmull and Pixar. Coyle says, “If you set out to design a life that represented the perfect merger of art and science, you might design one that looks like Catmull’s.” Then, just below, after mentioning a little bit about Catmull’s parents and his early interests, he says “After college, he landed a job with George Lucas…”

Well yes, it was, technically, “after college,” but it was a full five years after Catmull got his PhD. And, after talking about the life as a model for the perfect merger of art and science, Coyle leaves out the fact that in his pre-Lucas and pre-Pixar days, Ed Catmull worked on projects for ARPA during the time he was working as a physicist.

Those are important things to know if you want to learn how Ed Catmull developed into the manager he is today. You can learn more about them in his book, Creativity, Inc, about his life and Pixar.

Special Note

Chapters 15 and 16 are worth reading, even if you skip everything else. Chapter 15 is “How to Lead for Proficiency” while chapter 16 is “How to Lead for Creativity.” The two skills are different and which one you choose as a manager will determine what values you treasure and what kinds of performance you optimize.

In A Nutshell

This is a book that will help you create a strong and supportive culture where you are. There are problems with the book, but they’re not big enough or consistent enough to really detract from the value. If you want to learn about how to create and maintain a positive and strong culture in your team or organization, buy and read The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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