Review – The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

This review first ran in the Feb. 13 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

culture codeThe Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups

By Daniel Coyle

Bantam Books


You and I are probably smarter than a bunch of kindergarten kids.

But don’t bank on us working smarter than them..

Engineer and designer Peter Skillman ran a competition where business students in university squared off against kids in kindergarten.

The four-member teams had to beat the clock and build a tower using  uncooked spaghetti, tape and string with a marshmallow on top.

Unlike the business students, the kids didn’t strategize, analyze or do blue-sky thinking. No roles and responsibilities were assigned. No team charters were drafted. They didn’t worry about who was in charge, what the rules were or whether it was okay to criticize.

Instead, they acted like a bunch of five-year-olds and got right to work.

“Their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together,” says Daniel Coyle, author of The Culture Code and an advisor to the Cleveland Indians.

Here’s what you would you have seen if you watched the little kids outperform the big kids.

“They are not competing for status,” says Coyle. “They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes which guides them toward effective solutions.”

In dozens of trials, the kindergarten kids built spaghetti towers that didn’t topple and averaged 26 inches tall. The business students either ran out of time or came up short with towers averaging less than 10 inches.

“The kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.”

Because you can’t hire an army of five-year-olds, focus instead on creating a culture where groups in your organization will thrive.

As a leader, you create a high-performance culture by continually and consistently doing three things:

  • Building safety. “When you ask people inside highly successful groups to describe their relationship with one another, they all tend to choose the same word. This word is not friends or team or tribe. The word they use is family.” In a highly successful group, you’re constantly reminded that you belong and you feel psychologically safe.
  • Sharing vulnerability. Instead of covering up weaknesses or pretending you have all the answers, ask for help. Being vulnerable leads to co-operation and trust. Highly successful groups don’t shy away from asking tough questions and giving hard feedback. “These groups seem to intentionally create awkward, painful interactions that look like the opposite of smooth cooperation. The fascinating thing is, however, these awkward, painful interactions generate the highly cohesive, trusting behavior necessary for smooth cooperation.”
  • Establishing purpose. “High-purpose environments are filled with small, vivid signals designed to create a link between the present moment and a future ideal.” These organizations are not at all subtle in spelling out and constantly reminding everyone about here’s where we are and here’s where we want to go.

Coyle profiles eight high-performing groups and leaders who create the right conditions for teams to work smarter together.  He also offers practical ideas for building safety, sharing vulnerability and establishing purpose.

“While a successful culture can look and feel like magic, the truth is that it’s not,” says Coyle. “Culture is a set of living relationships working toward a shared goal. It’s not something you are. It’s something you do.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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